ART’s Dream Startles Audiences

On Feb. 23, the current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the American Repertory Theatre (ART) will come to a quiet close. This is characteristic of the production, which has been reluctant to promote itself. And it is not likely to be regarded in the same formidable category as some of the company’s more outlandish and controversial Shakespeare productions of the past decade—including Andrei Serban’s Merchant of Venice, which portrayed Shylock as a lip-smacking comic villain, and Ron Daniel’s complete Henry IV, with motorcycling guards and a tavern strung with Christmas lights.

The hush surrounding Midsummer has nothing to do with its performance at the box office, which has been solid, nor with audience reception, which appears to have been quite positive. It owes, rather, to a deep puzzlement on the part of theater critics and commentators over how to describe the effect of the show or characterize its very rare and very deep success. One local reviewer praised nearly all elements of the production, from the lighting to the comedy to the notorious flying fairies, before confessing his “complicated” and “profoundly ambivalent” reaction to the show. Most reviewers tended to dwell on the production’s “dark” and “eerie” aspects, commenting on the vast, gray, sooty wasteland of a set—bare except for three yawning graves—and remarking on how mean and callous the lovers sound as they snipe and push each other around the stage. Save for the unanimous critical praise for the mechanical’s concluding performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe,” which prompted mad hooting and a standing ovation from the audience, Midsummer seems to strike viewers as a dark dream.

Mixed reactions alone are not surprising for an ART production, but what is different in this instance is that this show is far more deserving of attention than some of the ART’s previous productions—such as this past summer’s maddening Pericles—that appear to aspire to confound audiences. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the most popular comedies to perform, as many productions of the play present themselves as a teenage romp through fairyland, with some clever resolutions and free slapstick at the end—to the delight of audiences. But it is not a simple play and at its best it throws the audience, like the lovers, into extreme confusion.

As this production, which is crisply and believably executed, makes clear, Midsummer is replete with the language of mutability, uncertainty and entrapment. Dramaturg Gideon Lester’s program notes highlight the scene in which Titania embraces Bottom, and points out that the tenderness of her gesture is undercut by her language, with its images of destructive nature: “So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle / Gently entwist; the female ivy so/ Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.”

Productions of Midsummer generally lack the boldness, or the attentiveness, to recognize these elements of uncertainty as integral to the structure and language of the play. They are perhaps the central feature that has made Midsummer such a compelling curiosity. It is in bringing out these qualities that the ART’s production has achieved its greatest success.

This success is even more admirable for having been entirely conceived from the director’s intuition or her unparalleled, pure connection with the material. Martha Clarke is principally a choreographer, known for her experiments with flying—featured in this show, with pretty results—and her membership in the Pilobolus Dance Theater. She has little experience in directing “straight” plays, has noted repeatedly in interviews that Shakespeare is “my first dead playwright,” and says she has no interest in directing another Shakespeare play any time soon.

Clarke seems distinctly, and unashamedly, unaware of what she has done with this show. At a discussion with Clarke last Monday sponsored by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, facilitator John Rockwell’s voice rang with exasperation as he pushed Clarke to explain her interpretation. Did a feminist interpretation, he asked, determine the play’s opening scenes—which feature Karen MacDonald as an impudent Hippolyta, swollen with mute resentment of her husband Theseus (John Campion), the top-heavy emblem of dour autocratic unreasonableness? Clarke didn’t think so. “Quite often, I don’t know why I make the selections I make. I kind of instinctually and intuitively move through decisions.”

What had motivated her unusual characterization of Puck as a leering hobgoblin, done up in dreadlocks and hallowed eye sockets like an undead Bob Marley? “I know when I see actors whether I want them or not,” she said. “I just saw [actor Jesse Perez] for an audition, and there was Puck.”

The interview made clear that Lester was something like the show’s textual director, working to locate with precision, and draw out of the actor’s line readings, the inherent and unsettling complexity that Clarke had correctly sensed.

—Staff writer Emma Firestone can be reached at efirest@fas.harvard.edu