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Spirited away: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” transported to Japan…or Brandeis

By Maxwell Price

Section: Arts

March 26, 2009

The tricky part of staging an amateur production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that Shakespeare refuses to let us forget that we are watching an amateur theatrical production. Just as the crafty Puck begins to enchant our senses, Nick Bottom and his merry band of rude mechanicals clumsily jerk us back into the “real world,” in which a spirit is suddenly none other than the kid who sits next to you in Biology strutting across the stage in fairy wings. Although professional versions certainly exhibit similar metatheatrical elements, the play within a play motif takes on a particular resonance when it comments not only on the art of the theater but on the particular quality of amateurity.

Hold Thy Peace’s production of Shakespeare’s celebrated early comedy, directed by Taylor Shiells ‘09, shifts the setting of the play from Athens to Meiji era Japan. Shiells asks us to imagine this liminal period directly after the Meiji Restoration in which shifts in political power also signal profound cultural transformations in the island nation. I found the specific historical time frame conceptually ambitious and more intellectually interesting than a simple geographical change might have been.

Yet glancing from the program notes to the stage, I couldn’t quite make the connection between ideas and execution. Marissa Linzi’s ’11 gorgeous, flowing, floral kimonos certainly presented signifiers of Japanese-ness, and the sparse bamboo forest set fit nicely as part of the Asian motif, but these aesthetic choices neither detracted from Shakespeare’s text nor offered new contextual meaning for the play at large. The design elements were simply pleasant to watch and admire as works unto themselves.

The primary reason that the transformation of setting didn’t reveal the profundity of insight that Shiells probably had in mind was that the actors didn’t seem to recognize the shift. It seemed as if each member of the cast had a distinctive vision for his or her character, but there was little attempt at tying together the various styles into an overarching milieu.

For example, Lenny Somervel ’12 presents Theseus as a jolly, affable gent who exhibits about as much regal bearing as Santa Claus, so it’s difficult to imagine “him” wooing anyone with a sword. Charlotte Oswald ’12 as Hippolyta, however, takes on such a melancholic, languishing air that the contrast makes their marriage seem more comically mismatched than tragic.

Amongst the four young lovers, Zanna Nevins ’12 as Hermia was the highlight, but her valiant attempt to create chemistry with Jon Plesser’s ’12 Lysander was an awkward affair at best. The former’s delicate innocence and whimsical passion seemed not to move Plesser beyond superficial displays of emotion. Yet watching Nevins express her desire to a brick wall would have been engaging. Likewise, Phoebe Roberts’s ’09 wily, scampering Puck was a physical marvel, not only for the astounding feats of her quadriceps, but for the devilish mirth in her every gesture.

Paradoxically, some of the most memorable performances of the play came from those actors who seemed to mock themselves. Jonathan Kindness’ ’09 take on Bottom was positively riveting as he refigured the brash, uncouth craftsman as a kind of aspiring dandy. While this might sound like a recipe for disaster, Kindness managed to pull it off with so much poise and charisma that the audience was left craving his presence onstage.

Thus, it was the moments in which the play seemed to acknowledge itself for what it was, an amateur college production, that the audience seemed to enjoy it most. There is a kind of perverse joy in realizing that the kid with the fairy wings who sits next to you in Biology is conspiring with your help to create a make-believe world. And then it doesn’t matter whether the stage represents Japan or Greece or England, because somehow, the Shapiro Theater of Brandeis University has became a magical place.

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