Fantastical tale explores down-to-earth issues in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

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Carli Baker/Senior Staff

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“Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind,” wrote Shakespeare in his comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Luckily for theatergoers, enjoyment at Zellerbach Playhouse this month looks with both the eyes and the mind as the theater, dance and performance studies department puts on its rendition of the witty and magical play in honor of the Bard’s 450th birthday, which is coming up next year.

Director Christine Nicholson chose to set her production in the 1960s (costumes and props reflect this epoch), but the text remains mostly intact. “I thought the tension of the time fit the tension of the play,” Nicholson said. “We see how far people will go in the pursuit of love.” Although the baby boomer and beatnik generations aren’t inherently central to the message of the play, it is interesting to view it through this lens when considering the characters’ growing autonomy, a fundamental ideal of the ’60s.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” chronicles two sets of complicated lovers as they frolic through the Athenian forest — running either toward or away from the promises of love. The relationship between the lovers — Hermia (Sharlee Taylor), Lysander (Aaron Kitchin), Helena (Madalyn Rilling) and Demetrius (Greg Zoumaras) — is a knotted network of tensions; Helena loves Demetrius, who loves Hermia, who reciprocates Demetrius’ feelings of passion but not without escaping Lysander’s unwelcome love. Thrown into the mix are Oberon (Matthew Hannon) and Titania (Dasha Burns), the fairy king and queen, respectively, of the magical forest world, and a group of mechanicals who rehearse a play in the same wooded realm, in which enchanted manipulative flowers and charmed love potions reign.

“The play is an instance of Shakespeare’s festive comedies,” said UC Berkeley English professor David Marno, who teaches an undergraduate course focusing on a selection of Shakespeare’s works. “It begins with a classic comic premise — lovers distanced by family or patriarchal society — and presents a social crisis between men and women. Then there is a withdrawal to nature where these societal conventions are somewhat suspended.”

Marno drew comparisons between the play and conflicts in modern society in regard to one of the characters, Hippolyta (Natasha Brown), an Amazon queen who is to become the Lady of Athens through marriage. “In ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ Shakespeare depicts women and their agency,” he said. “Shakespeare shows women who try to hold on to agency over their own bodies and men trying to take that agency away. In a way, we can compare these issues to women’s rights and even reproductive rights in a society that is still somewhat male-dominated.”

Despite the deeper societal messages the play presents, the performance remains a lively presentation. Puck, played by Quinn Nagle, stands out as the most theatrical and whimsical of the group. As the fairy king’s tricky sprite, Nagle woos the audience with his seductive banter and sassy dance moves.

Equally as hilarious is Quince (Cecily Schmidt), the director of the farcical play within the play. Schmidt’s comedic timing and delivery are impeccable, setting the right tone for the hilarious and ridiculous scenes that follow, featuring the mechanicals portrayed as blue-collar workers.

“For all the mechanicals, (the play within the play) is a way of … imagining for themselves and participating,” said the production’s dramaturg, Philippa Kelly, a Shakespeare scholar and California Shakespeare Theater’s resident dramaturg. “Key to the mechanicals’ performance is the fact that they themselves are very moved by it — they cannot imagine it as ridiculous to their audience.”

This disparity between the upper and lower classes and the differences in their tastes in humor are reflective not only of a farcical narrative but also of the audiences Shakespeare was writing for in Elizabethan England.

Yes, theater, dance and performance studies’ charming rendition of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is funny, but it calls upon broader societal and historical implications that go beyond mere laughter. One thing’s for sure: The play will have you, along with the character Nick Bottom, saying, “I’ve had the most rare vision.”

Addy Bhasin covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].