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'A Midsummer Night's Dream', directed by Edward Hall

by Rajika Puri
March 27, 2004
Brooklyn Academy of Music
30 Lafayette Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11217
(718) 636-4111

'A Midsummer Night's Dream', directed by Edward Hall

A Watermill Theatre (UK) production by Propeller.
at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, March 16th to 28th, 2004.

Rajika Puri
March 27, 2004

Edward Hall's Propeller, an all-male theatre company which works out of the Watermill Theatre an hour north of London, reminds us that theater is not just about words, it's about bringing those words alive through an actor using her or his whole body to give a multi-dimensional reality to those words. Movement is such an important part of an actor's craft.

Moreover, Propeller's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' takes a general trend towards physicality in British classic theater to a delightful place. Not only do actors turn cartwheels, stand on their heads, carry other actors around -sometimes 'piggy-back' - and fall flat on the ground (most alarmingly) with loud thumps, they also punctuate their verse with wild gestures, over-blown facial expressions, and (literally) slap-stick humor. Puck (Simon Scardifield) starts the whole evening by putting on a slightly-the-worse-for-wear ballet 'tutu' and proceeding to shift his hips, first left and then right, - accompanied by the percussive sounds of a harmonica played by a fellow actor. During the nuptial revelries at the end, the bridal couples break into a square dance - accompanied by Bottom (Tony Bell) on the violin.

At various other times during the play the actors display not only their movement skills but their musicality as well. A highlight of the evening is the intermission, when the company comes out into the foyer and sings songs from the 'sixties and 'seventies, including "Dream, dream, dream, dream . . . all I want to do is dream." The actor playing Puck explains that, "in a hitherto unknown text attributed to the Bard", it was suggested that the company sing some oldies for the audience at this time. He also recommends that from then on those of us in the more expensive seats add "in faith" to everything we say, and that those in the gallery sneak down 'to converse with the prostitutes'- who would have been among those present in the pit during Elizabethan times.

Such tom-foolery could easily go wrong, because it impresses no-one, unless the production itself satisfies. In fact, among serious Shakespearean audiences - and we have many of those, even today - such broad humor and unashamed exuberance could easily go astray. To the credit of the fourteen actors, who as an ensemble collaborated with the brilliant director Edward Hall to produce this joyous production, they pull it off with aplomb. Like other productions by this young company established in 1997 - 'Henry V', 'The Comedy of Errors', "Rose Rage' (culled from the three parts of 'Henry VI') - their 'Dream' has been enthusiastically received by public and critics alike, in England and in the many countries, including the US, in which they have toured.

'Physical Theatre' - or theatre which uses movement-based techniques such as acrobatics, mask-work and mime - has been around in England for several years now. Theatre companies like Simon McBurney's 'Theatre de la Complicite' and 'Cheek by Jowl', founded by Declan Donellan and Nick Ormerod, transformed the training of British actors, so that today there is in London a 'School of Physical Theatre' which offers actors courses in techniques both from Europe's past - those of 'commedia del arte', for example - and from other continents like Asia which have strong movement-based theater traditions.

Yet for all this, no one knows better than the English the importance of the word itself. The various written versions of Shakespeare's play, with their minimal stage directions, permit a director and cast much freedom. However, unless the choices make sense to an audience familiar from early childhood with the texts, a production can seem gratuitous. What is so intellectually satisfying about this romp is that everything they do - outrageous or not - is supported by the text. When Puck - also known as 'Robin Goodfellow', a folk mischiefmaker - carries Hermia (Jonathan McGuiness) on his back, one is reminded of his first speech, when he speaks of pretending to be a three legged-stool on whom a wise aunt sits, only to topple down when he 'slips from her bum'. When Helena (Rober Hand) stamps every time she says the word "one", you are reminded of the many times Shakespeare used that word - and with conscious intent - to underline the closeness of Helena's childhood friendship with Hermia.

The words, moreover, are spoken with ease. True, this play is one of the most transparent in meaning among Shakespeare's works. Still, it is not often that actors skim over the lines with such dexterity, making every syllable audible while yet allowing the sense to come through with the spontaneity of everyday language. So when someone accompanies a phrase with a gesture, an arch look, or a full-body pose, his movement doesn't feel as if it is intended to help 'unpack' the verse. Instead, it seems to be offered as an added layer of meaning - to embellish a character trait, open up a secondary meaning or, simply, to underline the mischievous quality of the play.

The hustle and bustle on stage gives the production such a bursting energy that an audience gets infected. During the intermission we want to sing along with them. After they have finished, we continue to clap for a long time, and turning to each other we say: "Now that was a treat - in faith!" Like Peter Brook's path-breaking production of the same play in 1970, which came to New York in January, 1971, this is a 'Dream' that it will take many years - perhaps another full generation - to equal.



Puck' (Simon Scardifield) places magic potion in 'Lysander' (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart)'s eyes.
Photo courtesy of Richard Termine/BAM



Helena (Robert Hands) asks Demetrius (Vincent Leigh) for a kiss, while Oberon (Barnaby Kay) looks on.
Photo courtesy of Richard Termine/BAM



Puck (Simon Scardified) and members of Propeller Company
Photo courtesy of Richard Termine/BAM

Stephen Petronio Company 'BLOOM' Pictured: Elena Demianenko and Jonathan Jaffe-foreground, Jimena Paz in back

Stephen Petronio Company
"BLOOM"
Pictured: Elena Demianenko and Jonathan Jaffe-foreground, Jimena Paz in back

Photo © & courtesy of Chris Woltmann


Stephen Petronio Company 'The Rite Part' Pictured: Shila Tirabassi

Stephen Petronio Company
"The Rite Part"
Pictured: Shila Tirabassi

Photo © & courtesy of Chris Woltmann

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