Shimmering cloth covers a long table as King Oberon and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, emerge from behind a towering, chain-link fence. Red garments hang from wires overhead, and regal music sounds as they take their places. The meal dissolves into an argument — an Athenian father urging his daughter to wed the man he approves, not the man she loves. So begins Shakespeare’s mystical comedy.
Triad Stage performs A Midsummer Night’s Dream against the rules set by what Director Preston Lane refers to as the “cult built up around Shakespeare in this country.” Lane, along with the cast and crew, rehearsed and rehashed the traditions surrounding the Bard’s scenes to give them an updated feel. Bringing the Elizabethan era play to 21st Century audiences requires a balancing act and a re-examination of the canon.
“In a play that starts with war-prize marriages and women condemned to death if they won’t marry the man their father demands, it is hard not to question the romance,” he says.
Theatergoers realize early on that this does not begin as a love story, but by the end are cheering for two sets of lovers to tie the knot.
Transformation echoes throughout the performance in acting, costuming and set design. The once ornate dining table unfolds into a wooden platform with a hidden door, from which the mischievous Puck pops out. The two pairs of young lovers exchange their jackets or layer aprons and belts to take the roles of Nick Bottom’s craftsman entourage. King Oberon and Queen Hippolyta don glitter and feathers to masquerade as the Fairy King and Queen.
And as scripted, Nick Bottom becomes a donkey, and an unknowing pawn in an otherworldly game.
The most obvious transformation is that of the audience member, from spectator to participant.
“The relationship between actor and audience is personal and immediate,” Lane explains.
Shakespeare often employed fourth-wall breaks into his works; Triad Stage manages to engross the audience further, planting character entrances behind seats and having lines spoken as characters walk to the main stage.
Not even time acts as a barrier between fiction and reality. Though the words spoken carry their Elizabethan quality, the cast delivers them with ease and colloquial tones. Hoodies and jumpsuit rompers replace corsets and stockings. Timelessness is a characteristic of many of Shakespeare’s plays, with humor and messages that transcend trends, but rejecting the unrelatable traits of many performances grants the audience a more intimate connection to the story.
Lane clarifies that the rejection of historical tradition was intentional, to revitalize the show. By approaching the play as if it were new, original twists become possible. Turning set changes, usually hidden, into rock-and-roll interludes, or having props zip-lined directly to the cast, break from theatrical structures to the delight of the audience.
Even with all the alterations made, jokes from the 1500s garner hysterics from the crowd. The royal court commands, and the fairy world mystifies, as if unfamiliar to theatergoers.
The couples find their way back to the land of mortals and a wedding night and play-within-a-play wrap up the tale. The garments rise back up and the theater glows with dim lights. All exit, one by one, except for the trickster. Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, addresses the viewers.
“Gentles, do not reprehend,” the rogue requests. “If you pardon, we will mend.”