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Stratford's first live, in-person play since 2019 could make you forget the nightmare of the past year
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM by William Shakespeare (Stratford Festival). Runs to August 1. Sold out. stratfordfestival.ca. Rating: NNN
For most of us, the last 16 months have been unreal, a waking nightmare full of fear and uncertainty. So how fitting that the Stratford Festival should launch its outdoor season – including its first live, in-person performances since 2019 – with a play reflecting life’s topsy-turvy nature: Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Peter Pasyk’s bold, sexy production at the Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy might not be the most profound or consistent version, but it’s sure to entertain you and distract you from your pandemic worries.
It begins with a lovely touch. A large piece of cloth obscures something in the centre of the stage which, like the one inside the newly rebuilt theatre nearby, features audiences sitting on either side of it. The ensemble soon enters, dons masks and takes off the cloth to reveal Puck (Trish Lindström), who, in a nice bit of stage magic appears to be flying atop a trunk.
“Are you here for the show?” she asks us. That gets a laugh. “It’s been a long time.” And that gets an even bigger one.
This Puck acts as a mischievous narrator figure: part clown, part Emcee from Cabaret, part Clockwork Orange thug – the latter suggested by Lorenzo Savoini’s colourful costume. In Pasyk’s Dream, Puck seems to be on equal footing both with his master, King of the Fairies Oberon (Craig Lauzon), and Oberon’s Queen, Titania (Bahareh Yaraghi).
It’s Puck, after all, who toys with the fates of the two pairs of young Athenians, Hermia (Eva Foote) and her lover Lysander (Micah Woods), and Helena (Amakah Umeh), who loves Demetrius (Jonathan Mason), who in turn loves Hermia, as well as the rude mechanicals (headed by André Sills’s Bottom) who are planning to put on a play for the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta (Lauzon and Yaraghi).
And Lindström relishes her prominent role, sitting on the trunk and munching popcorn with Lauzon’s Oberon to watch the action unfold, or addressing the audience from a little hill at the side of the canopy. (The actor is also excellent as Hermia’s put-upon father, Egeus.)
If any group seems to have suffered from Pasyk’s cuts to the text – which runs just over 90 minutes, without intermission – it’s Oberon and Titania. Without learning why they’re arguing at the start – it involves a young boy given to Titania – Oberon’s actions don’t really make sense. And besides, Pasyk, in a bold but ultimately confusing addition, makes it seem like Titania is in on a certain plot development.
Still, this Dream, like the way Doug Ford has handled the pandemic, isn’t about logic. And Pasyk directs the other two strands of the story with skill. That’s impressive, since most of the actors double up in their roles, even adding to Reza Jacobs’s haunting score by contributing percussion sounds from just offstage.
Of the young lovers, Umeh’s Helena comes across with the most emotional clarity and attention to detail; the actor, who was to have played Hamlet (directed by Pasyk) last season, is grounded and spontaneous in every scene. Among the working-class mechanicals, Foote’s Snug makes a charming, endearing lion. Having the most fun of all is Sills’s Bottom, who brings a guileless simplicity and freshness to his lines that feels just right. When his Bottom recalls his dream, it’s like we’re hearing the lines for the first time. And the way Pasyk directs him to look twice at Yaraghi near the end – does he remember what he did with her when she played Titania? – is haunting.
There are some nice additions to this production; the fairies, for instance, are played by stick puppets. And the young lovers get up to some raunchy stuff beneath that same bit of cloth from the top of the show.
But more moments like Sills’s double take at Yaraghi would have made this fine production truly enchanting.