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This is the Shakespeare show that won't let me go
On Facebook, my friends constantly share which rappers or Real Housewives best reflect their very essence. As for me, I'm not a fan of personality quizzes -- I don't want to be Vanilla Ice or Vicki Gunvalson! -- but if there were one built around Shakespeare's plays, I'm sure I would be pegged as A Midsummer Night's Dream. I don't say that with pride; to the contrary, I'm actually a little embarrassed. I'd like to think I was a Hamlet type (so brooding, so quotable) or King Lear (so epic, so mercurial). But I know I'm destined to be something lighter, slightly amusing, and periodically libidinous.
My relationship with A Midsummer Night's Dream dates back to college, when I was cast as Robin Starveling, the most ridiculed of the Rude Mechanicals to perform the play within the play about Pyramus and Thisbe. What I recall most about the production is that I was the only male cast member without a proper pair of pants. Instead, I wore an ill-cut sack, a sort of medieval mini-dress which constantly threatened to expose my matching underwear, also made of burlap. As period authenticity goes, this struck me as a bit too far. I knew Shakespeare was difficult to speak, but did he have to be difficult to wear, too?
I admit, that experience didn't initially endear the Bard to me and, for a time, I went around ranting that we should stop reviving his works altogether and devote our money and energy to new plays instead. However, Midsummer refused to let me go, and has been resurfacing regularly in my life ever since. And when it does, this frothy fantasy never fails to seduce me anew.
That ongoing, unending passion for this play was fully ignited in 1999 thanks to Diane Paulus' The Donkey Show, an interactive disco adaptation of Midsummer performed in a nightclub. That revel opened my eyes to the wonders of Shakespeare's imagination. A smartly silly lip-sync musical, The Donkey Show was glittery, campy, outrageous, and gay -- all qualities I admired, and the last of which I happened to be. It also was sexy as hell. "Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind," says the lovesick Helena in Midsummer. However, I would counter, "Lust looks with the eyes" as that production abounded with the beauty of youth. Did I dance with Puck? Of course I did. Every chance I got. But how I wanted more.
And thanks to Gorilla Rep, I've always been able to get some. Since 1989, the company has mounted a free outdoor version in Washington Square Park every summer that doesn't require tickets, reservations, or seats. In the aughts when I was primarily making my living as a theatre critic, these were all welcome qualities. It was nice to see a show just to see a show. And the fact that it was scrappy, loud, and proclamatory was fine by me. It embodied a can-do spirit and populist ideology. The last time I stumbled upon it with a friend, we played peekaboo as we watched from the constantly shifting sidelines. This was a play in which you could play.
Encountering Gorilla Rep's Midsummer always makes me feel free and open to chance, though I've seen other highly enjoyable outdoor variations in other parks, including Barefoot Shakespeare's trippy-hippy take at Summit Rock this past June. Mind you, none of this has soured me to indoor interpretations. I'll happily catch Midsummer fever wherever it pops up. Bedlam's 2015 Midsummer established my gold standard. By paring the cast down to five shapeshifters, this staging took the line "Lord what fools these mortals be" to the extreme. If I'd ever had any doubt that we're all basically clueless clowns regardless of our station in life, then this production banished them forevermore. Every single character seemed patently ridiculous; every scene change a chance for slapstick. Was it definitive? Of course not. Such an adjective doesn't apply to Shakespeare. But my god, it was revelatory. Who doesn't want their existential insights coupled with unending laughs?
Even though I've seen Midsummer more than any other play, my love for it now runs constant as I'm always keen for a new take. So naturally last week I caught the Public Theater's current Shakespeare in the Park production at the Delacorte and yet again I was enchanted. While previous mountings had me focused on the Rude Mechanicals (college), the ravishing lovers (Donkey Show), and a kind of everyman (Bedlam), this latest incarnation pushed the fairy kingdom to the fore for me. There's something sad about an old queen (in this case, Titania) who falls for a nice ass (or Bottom if you prefer). Isn't there? And what of all her attendants who likewise fawn over that man who's clearly a buffoon? As Titania (played by Phylicia Rashad) puts it: "How came these things to pass? O, how mine eyes do loathe his visage now!" It's a line that had never jumped out at me before, but suddenly it rang like a gong. Was it talking about me, older yet perhaps not wiser? Who hasn't suffered through delusional dreams? Shakespeare speaks to us not just over centuries and generations, but from year to year and day to day as we grow and transform. I always keep my donkey ears with my fellow fools to hear what he has to say. And hopefully, get some love too.
Are you obsessed with a particular Shakespeare play? Tell us about it in the comments.
Drew Pisarra's theatre experiences range from ventriloquist (Singularly Grotesque) to librettist (The World Is Round), choreographer (Ladies' Voices) to master of ceremonies (White Wines). Follow him on Twitter at @mistermysterio. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Phylicia Rashad and Danny Burstein in the Public Theater's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Delacorte. Photo by Joan Marcus.