It’s a testament to how much my wife likes me that she actively does stuff like scanning upcoming and recent theatre shows in the area for special offers, flash sales and other deals. She knows that I’m a huge fan of the stage despite growing up in Maine, and rural Maine at that, where we didn’t see a whole lot of productions touring. Don’t get me wrong, the Portland Stage Company and Waterville Opera House both do a bang-up job putting shows together on a budget and I have enjoyed everything from Camelot to Little Shop of Horrors to Hamlet performed live between the two places, but it’s so nice being in a large city where you can catch larger, weirder and more experimental shows.
In this case she snagged slashed-price tickets for a midweek showing of Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is in a tie with The Tempest (okay, and maybe Macbeth if I’m in a mood) for my favorite of Shakespeare’s work.
My love of Shakespeare goes back to age 12-13ish, when I realized that his work was only dull read off the page and I started mainlining every film version I could find at the local video rental places. Midsummer and Tempest snagged me more than any of the others for a variety of reasons, but before I get into that I want to talk about Shakespeare in general and why I am drawn to his work.
Something that is trotted out as both a criticism and a praise of his body of work is that it was written to be understood by a low denominator. It seems flowery now but at the time it was like a decently written HBO drama with a lot of blood and sex to rile the audience up and draw people in through word of mouth. I like that his work is so pared down and speaks to such broad themes that you can take most of his stories, drop them into any era, any region, and still have them speak to fundamental human experiences. As someone who likes character-driven stories, that’s like… the gold standard. If your characters and themes are so compelling, so solid that you can have them push a plot in renaissance Europe, medieval Japan or modern day New York without having to change the fundamental structure of the tale, that’s something to aspire to.
Do I think he dominates theatre education more than he should? Yeah, absolutely. I agree that he receives a lion’s share due to his status as a distinguished dead white dude. It doesn’t diminish what he wrote but I do wish that other amazing playwrights like Langston Hughes, or Paula Vogel, or Lorraine Hansberry or Kunio Kishida… you take my point.
I still love his work, though. Part of that is probably having been exposed to more of it at an early age than the wider range of playwrights who I came to appreciate through university and into adulthood, but watching a good Shakespeare performance leaves my mind and body humming with energy. Especially when they do something new and bizarre with it.
Let me summarize the weirdness of this particular take on Midsummer: the aesthetic was a mixture of modern and archaic, with contemporary business suits, older style wedding garments, the play-within-a-play sequence using props out of the 1960s or 70s. Not the first time I’ve seen a modernized Shakespeare retaining the original language, it adds a nice air of trippiness right there. The fairies in this one, though. Man. Titania and Oberon wore clothes that looked like someone had melted disco balls over them and then hit them with spotlights, and the fairy court came out dressed in skin colored onesies bedecked with weird growths, tufts of neon hair and more. They staggered around the stage or walked on all fours backwards while a strobelight made the entire thing look like stop motion animation. When Bottom the Weaver finally succumbed to enchantment and became an ass, this was accomplished by jamming a donkey mask full of fake blood on his head, at which point he stripped nude and had simulated sex with Titania at the back of the stage while all the lights turned red and industrial music rattled the room.
Let me tell you why I like Midsummer and Tempest the most, beyond their supernatural elements: I love tricksters, and Puck, Ariel and Caliban are some of the greatest. Especially tricksters who are bound to a more serious figure and must figure out ways to carry out their orders while either undermining them or fighting back through loopholes and pedantry. Puck is the undisputed king of this to my mind. I love Stanley Tucci’s Puck in the charmingly twee 1999 film adaptation of the play, and Brent Spiner’s roguish but ultimately loyal Puck/Owen from Disney’s Gargoyles, and the sinister, creepy version of Puck masterminding horror from the shadows in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics. They’re so many different facets of my favorite archetype, and I will go to pretty much any Midsummer production just to see their take on Puck.
This Puck was channeling somewhere between Panic! At The Disco’s Brendon Urie and Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Tim Curry as Frank. This was a Puck who came out onto the empty stage with a black executioner’s hood over his head, removed it to reveal the face of Oberon, removed that rubber mask to show his own face, and then proceeded to strip down to glittering boxers, fishnets and nothing else. Then he smeared lipstick all over his face and nipples and added a whole new layer of bizarre homoeroticism to the production; when he was playing the part of an invisible spirit he’d straddle and pin Lysander and Demetrius, get into playful wrestling matches with Oberon, and generally just wreak strange havoc.
It was great, and it was a take on the character I haven’t seen before. I’ve seen androgynous Puck and gender-bent Puck but this was an entirely new energy that made for some great performances both by him and around him.
I don’t think there will be a time when Puck’s closing monologue doesn’t give me the chills and make me want to go pick up the Dream Country arc of Sandman, particularly the first half.
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream
After that we went to the roof of the Museum of Contemporary Art and got organic grapefruit and passionfruit sodas, solidifying our status as a disgusting bougie couple. Then I succumbed to temptation and went into one of the very few Starbucks in Sydney to get an iced pumpkin spice latte, because god damnit it’s been close to a year and you can’t find that stuff at any local vendor. Finally we capped the day off with a trip to the Hyde Park Noodle Market, an ongoing festival where dozens of vendors sell everything from ramen to bao to dumplings and more. I ended up downing a several prawn and crab spring rolls, a lance-sized chicken skewer in sweet soy glaze, a sesame and maple waffle-on-a-stick, several prawn shumai, and half a plate of fries with some kind of sriracha cream sauce drizzled over them, after which I rolled home and collapsed into a coma.
I have only just awakened from this haunted slumber and that’s why I don’t have any new books to recommend right now, but I’ll try to be back with two next Monday to make up for it. If I don’t get sucked into doing final passes on the anthology, at least – preliminary reviews/takes from the early copy have come back with a grand total of like… three or four typos total to iron out before the final version goes up on Amazon in a little over a week.