It all began at dusk. The leaves on the trees around the waterfront amphitheatre near the Prescott Marina started rustling in a strange way. Out popped a band of green creatures with shining eyes and plants growing out of their ears, with ragged clothing and a nervous stance. Flutes, drums and harps accompanied what resembled chanting, calling up the spirits of the forest who were hiding somewhere in John Doucet’s chaotic setting of hanging vines and shredded greenery. Thus began director Catriona Leger’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream presented at the St Lawrence Shakespeare Festival, the first play of the Festival’s 1oth season, and a delightful production that was definitely something to celebrate.
There were few exceptionally strong performances but thanks to the director’s good eye and excellent work with the actors, along with her sense of rhythm and talent for creating a most harmonious group dynamic, the performances retained a highly charged sense of youthful playfulness and beautifully engaged the audience for the whole two hours.
The use of space and the set itself (designed by John Doucet) became an important presence in this magical world as actors ran around the slightly thrust centre structure. They emerged from the audience, they emerged from the sides and from the back; they ran past behind the stage in full view of the audience, or ran back and forth along the marina docks, creating a whole world of Shakespearean creatures that seemed to flow over from the performance and come out of the water, or fall out of the sky rushing about in fits of energy. Leger harnessed all the space, transforming it into a total world invaded by various orders of beings that play the central roles.
There were the Athenian nobles, led by the Duke of Athens (Quincy Armorer) , working out his tangled web of emotional problems with his love Hippolyta (Alix Sideris); there is also Hermia (Lana Sugarman) who refuses to obey her father (Shane Carty) and wed Demetrius (Brad Long). She and her true love, Lysander (Warren Bain) plan to flee into the forest to escape the laws of Athens. However, the play then takes us into the parallel kingdom of fairies and magic creatures where King Oberon (Quincy Armorer) and Queen Tatiana (Alix Sideris) are supreme, played by the same two actors who are also entangled in their own world of jealousy and lovers quarrels. Oberon engages Puck (played by a most delightfully mischievous Melissa Morris) to punish the haughty Tatiana and to help the mortal Athenian lovers by intervening in their world. Puck’s mistaken use of that magical flower creates confusion, even more chaos and allows director Leger to orchestrate some of the lustiest lover’s battles one could imagine. Shrieking, snarling angry Hermia (Sugarman) defends her lost love and turns her furor on poor Helena (the excellent Kate Smith) who barely survives with her life in a most violent battle between the two Athenian mortal women.
The physical energy that exploded here gave us the sense of a contemporary reality show where the young women are fighting for their lives, completely contradicting Roberta Doylend’s delicately lacy dresses that don’t belong in such a rough and tumble forest environment. It all made for youthful energy and excitement. In this context, Lysander (Warren Bain) and Demetrius (Brad Long) spar and wrestle, using a male body language that was completely appropriate. It all turned into a physical performance by young actors who appeared to be far from Shakespeare and completely lost in their own contemporary reality, which is what made it all seem so authentic. Only a good director could produce such reactions.
Along with these quarrels and fairy feuds, Peter Quince the carpenter, with his merry band of local craftsmen (tinkers, tailors, joiners and weavers ) emerge in the forest where they are rehearsing a play, supposedly meant to entertain the Duke and his entourage for the upcoming Duke’s wedding. Their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, the craftsmen’s own rowdy version of Romeo and Juliette, is one of the funniest moments in the whole of Shakespeare’s repertoire, to my mind. It also includes a serious discussion on the nature of theatre but it is eventually broken up by Puck who transforms Bottom into an ass and sends his terrified friends shrieking into the forest.
The final performance of Pyramus and Thisbe where each actor becomes a character or a prop (wall, moon, and a lion) offers some of the most hilarious moments of the evening. Long lanky Adam Pierre – actually Flute the bellows-mender is a most graceful Thisbe while Ron Klappotz as Bottom (playing Pyramus) becomes a carpenter in full delirium, driven by his compulsion to play all the roles at once, by his need to perform until exhausted. Klappotz turns Bottom into a strangely campy quintessential showman, the very spirit of theatre who could not slow down. Some might call this overacting but given the magical world of the forest, Bottom’s tantrums of grief, his screaming and rolling round the stage as he pulls out the red handkerchiefs of blood and tosses them about like a self-destructing magician, produced one of the most noteworthy performances of the evening.
Alix Sideris as both Queen Hippolyta and Queen Tatiana gave her characters a slightly perverse dominatrix bent. Waking up in her bed of leaves and vines and spying the Asses head, she pounces on him with a lusty sexuality that shone from her eyes and subjugated all the fairies around her. Sideris was excellent but it seemed that at times, she was forcing her voice for that audience, to the point where the higher registers sounded too strained. She seemed to have the same problem as Emilia, Iago’s wife in Othello. Quincy Armour as both the Duke of Athens trying his best to please his lady love Hippolyta and Oberon trying to punish the proud Tatiana, was charming, gracious and regal, as he modulated his voice and his movements with great elegance.
It was all framed by a truly beautiful musical score that accompanied the actors, or that entertained us during multiple musical interludes which reinforced the atmosphere of a joyous party by the river. Melissa Morris’ work as musical director was an important presence in this production and Melissa herself proved to be a talented actress as well as a musician. She is surrounded by a team of musician/actors who also perform minor roles in the show.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a truly delightful production that is certainly worth the 50 minute drive from Ottawa to Prescott, especially on these balmy nights along the Saint Lawrence.
For tickets call the box office: 613-925-5788 and check the web site for show times.www.stlawrenceshakespeare.ca
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
Directed by Catriona Leger
Set design my John Doucet
Costume design by Roberta Doylend
Music direction by Melissa Morris
Fight direction by Doran Foley
Duke of Athens and Oberon Quincy Armorer
Hippolyta and Tatiana Alix Sideris
Philostrate and Fairy Alison Hess
Egeus and Fairy of the Forest Shane Carty
Hermia Lana Sugarman
Lysander Warren Bain
Demetrius Brad Long
Helena Kate Smith
Quince and Fairy of the Forest Dan Karpenchuk
Bottom Ron Klappolz
Francis Flute and Mustardseed Adam Pierre
Starveling and Peaseblossom Zachary Knowles
Tom Snout and Cobweb Will Lamond
Snug and Moth Dorian Foley
Puck, Robin, Goodfellow Melissa Morris