I finally got to see the Boise Bard Players’ production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and wow, it was really, really good! Seriously, check it out this weekend if you can, because you’ll not have seen this story this way before.
The story is probably fairly familiar to a lot of people, this show being, I believe, the most frequently performed of Shakespeare’s plays and having made its way into various other media in various forms (who else remembers the Midsummer elements in the Disney’s mid-’90s action cartoon Gargoyles?), but here’s a very brief version of the setup:
Hermia loves Lysander. Lysander and Demetrius both love Hermia, but Hermia’s father loves only Demetrius. Her father’s wishes having the weight of Athenian law, Hermia must choose between accepting Demetrius’ proposal of marriage or forever forsaking men and becoming a nun. Hermia and Lysander resolve to steal away in the night to a place leagues distant to be wed.
Hermia and Helena are BFFsies 4 everz, so Hermia confides her plan to Helena. But Helena is in love with Demetrius, so she tells him their intentions in order to… I guess impress him with her devotion so he’ll choose her instead? She doesn’t really seem to have realistic expectations about how this is likely to play out. Anyway, Demetrius follows Hermia and Lysander and Helena follows Demetrius and they all go into the forest at night.
Meanwhile, some “rude mechanicals,” which is to say uneducated tradesmen, have decided to submit a proposal to perform at the wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. They’re enthusiastic, but totally lacking in anything resembling theatrical skill and talent. They decide it would be a good idea to rehearse in the forest at night.
These lovers and mechanicals pass from the realm of the laws of men into the wyrd and wyld lands beyond civilization, a place ruled by dangers older and stranger but just as cruel and even more capricious. The humans stumble into Fairyland, where they bewitched and bedeviled by the powerful, inhuman forces that dwell there, drawn into a marital squabble between fae monarchs. Hijinks ensue.
The foremost thing I want to express about this production is that it is extremely funny. One of the reasons A Midsummer Night’s Dream is so often produced is that its humor reads well even for audiences unaccustomed to verse. There are all kinds of intricate layers to the humor, certainly. I feel like I notice some new joke in the text every time I see a new production. But part of the mission of the Boise Bard Players is to make classics accessible, and judging by the crowd’s reaction and my own they’ve succeeded here.
The second point I wish to express is the depth of the storytelling and performances. There is tremendous subtlety, nuance, and psychological ambivalence in this production, something that is very often lacking. The show is fundamentally a comedy, and a very good one, but there is also content that is challenging. It would have been easy in a comedy like this to treat these issues with a light, airy tone. It is as a dream on a Midsummer Eve, after all. Instead, this production treats the material seriously and with emotional naturalism, allowing the audience to engage with the characters as real. I found that this connection not only added richness depth to the play but heightened the humor, as well.
The production does not shy away the essential cruelties of the lovers’ situation. Hermia’s father, Egeus, is a despicable tyrant, his ultimatum to his daughter carrying the threat of death. Demetrius is abusive and inconstant, happy to have a woman he supposedly loves threatened into marrying without so much as a second thought and showing only bored brutality toward a woman to whom he had previously claimed to love. Helena, her reason dampened and her passion inflamed by all-consuming love, betrays her best friend for the mere chance to bring happiness to a man who finds her at best an annoyance. When the four trade the madness and viciousness of civilization for the heady, unrestrained, wild dangers of the land of Fairy it is almost a relief.
Almost. The lovers are far from safe in Fairyland. The fairies of this production are frightening and wild, powerful and virtually amoral. Their antics are funny, yes, but also upsetting. They they see people, including one another, as little more than playthings. They casually use magic to alter the very hearts and minds of those around them, behavior that is apparently considered acceptable in their society. It is easy to imagine that the humans entangled with the fairies may not escape and the pain inflicted on them by their absurd circumstances is very real in the moment.
This approach of humor tempered with depth makes for very compelling theatre. I wish I could better convey just how funny and affecting the show is, but honestly, it is best experienced for oneself.
Originally posted on medium.com by Will Hudson with Boise Theater Frequency.