Danny Scheie as donkey-konked Bottom flirts with fairy queen Titania (Pegge Johnson) in Aaron Posner’s production of Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, opening this weekend at Two River Theater in Red Bank. (Photos by Kevin Berne)
By TOM CHESEK (First published October 18, 2009)
The drama club of Brookdale Community College did it out on the lawn at Riverside Gardens. The good community players of Spring Lake did it in the park; a group of neighbors did it in an old farmhouse in Holmdel, and we have it on good authority that high school students have been doing this in auditoriums and all-purpose rooms since they invented school.
Sure, you’ve had plenty of chances to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream in recent years, but if it’s the only Shakespeare you’ve ever attempted to sit through — if you’ve always kind of thought of it as Bard for Beginners — be advised that Aaron Posner, the Artistic Director of Two River Theater Company and the man who teamed with Teller to bring a sensationally bloody magical Macbeth to Red Bank a couple of seasons back, is at large in the forest. What promises to be a fresh new look at A Midsummer Night’s Dream starts in previews tomorrow and opens this weekend, with its mischievous wood spirits, eloping lovers and ass-headed actors at play beneath a mid-autumn moon.
No, summer’s been and gone, as our current cold snap makes plain, and if it’s not exactly a sin (on a par with wearing white after Labor Day) to perform Dream in the off-season, then you’ve at least got to have a killer production in store if you’re not planning on frolicking around outdoors.
In fact, the great outdoors — the hills of Orinda, California to be precise — was where Posner’s new staging of the circa-1595 play took root. A co-production of TRTC and California Shakespeare Theater (just as the company’s previous 26 Miles was a collaboration with a troupe in Bethesda, Maryland), MND wrapped an acclaimed run at the open-air Bruns Amphitheatre a little over a week ago — whereupon the majority of the cast headed across the continent to set up shop (and temporary residency) in Red Bank. Posner, naturally, was already there on the scene.
Rest assured that the three intersecting plotlines of the Bard’s surreal comic fantasy of fairy royalty, the idle rich and working-class actors are still intact, albeit trimmed a little here and tweaked a little there. You’ve got young Hermia, eloping with her lover Lysander rather than being forced by her father into marriage with Demetrius. You’ve got the bickering, pranking fairy king Oberon and his queen Titania, with the barely contained Puck a constant wild card. You’ve got a regal wedding between Duke Theseus and Queen Hipployta, a festive event that summons a troupe of actors, in the persons of five working class “mechanicals” from the village.
The tradesmen put on a rather surprising play-within-a-play, the young lovers get their stars crossed, characters are attracted to the most innocuous partners, and yes, the earnestly hammy actor Bottom gets himself turned into a freak with the head of a donkey.
What’s new and different in this staging is the use of music — as incidental score, as song and as accompaniment to dance. And what’s reassuring here are the familiar faces from past TRTC shows — from company leading lady Erin Weaver (Our Town;Mary’s Wedding; A Murder, A Mystery and a Marriage) to two veterans of last year’s Frog and Toad. There’s Doug Hara, also from Posner’s brilliant take on Our Town, and there’s even the Shakespearean debut of Joseph Harrell, the former Marine drill instructor who was so memorable in last year’s ReEntry.
Red Bank oRBit caught up with Aaron Posner at his office, as the forest took shape on the first floor. Read on.
RED BANK ORBIT: I was going to ask how rehearsals are going, but since you just explained that the show is still running for one more performance in California, how have things been going out there?
AARON POSNER: Great; we’ve really surpassed our goals out there. It’s been a big hit, but it’s going to feel different when it goes up here.
How so? Apart from the obvious move from outdoors to indoors, what are you doing differently in the New Jersey production?
Well, it was exciting to do this outside — when you have a real moon and real stars to work with as part of your set, it’s a wonder and a delight — but the actors will be happy to move inside by this point. They’ve been playing with fifty degree swings in temperature from one performance to the next. And not having to push so much vocally should make for a clearer, sharper experience.
One of the main differences here will be in the casting of the ‘mechanicals’ — they’re totally different ages, sexes, races. It’s different from the way it was done out there; a whole new ballgame.
Danny Scheie, who’s a real San Francisco Bay Area star, is coming here from California as our Bottom, and he’s just terrific. In fact, he’ll be doing the BeforePlay talks prior to the performance.Then we’ve got a couple of actors that you’ll remember from Frog and Toad — Richie Ruiz as Starveling, and Tara Giordano, who plays ‘P.T. Quince.’
Joe Harrell from ReEntry is Snout, the actor who gets to play the wall. And we’ve got another member of the Two River family, Duane Noch, who in addition to being an actor has been our master carpenter here for the past couple of seasons, as Flute.
Most of the other actors in the cast are carrying over their roles from California. Erin Weaver is our Hermia, then there’s Keith Randolph Smith, Pegge Johnson, and Doug Hara, who you know from Our Town.
I have to say that Doug’s performance in that show was a big reason why it’s on my short list of the best shows I’ve ever seen here on the Shore. The graveyard scene near the end, where he just kneels at the end of the stage and gives voice to all of the different dead characters at their tombstones, was just one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen an actor do.
Well, like so many great moments in shows I’ve directed, it was not my idea! I have to give Doug credit for that. His creative genius, his energy, is woven into this play — I consider him to be a full-on creative partner, and I defy anyone to find a better Puck.
Do you often consider your actors to be your collaborators in realizing your vision? I’m sure there are a lot of directors who’d blanch at that idea.
I have big ideas, but I enjoy the collaborative process. The music score, for instance, emerged out of that process. There are some productions, such as Our Town — in which I was working with the concept of mixing live actors and puppets — where you could say that I was the director in full force. This play is more of an ensemble-focused endeavor. There are moments that came out of joking around, conversation — ‘the safe space,’ as Erin calls it. People need a space in which to feel comfortable to play, to try things, to fail.
And to fly? Are you going to be putting the fly-wires to work here at Two River, like Martha Clarke did with Garden of Earthly Delights?
No, no flying. There’s a little magic. But the story’s very simple, very beautiful. If I want magic, as we did with Macbeth, I’d want to go all the way.
So this production is more about the music, the passion, the fun — it’s a very funny production — and the humanity. We’ve found things in it, that have made it a fresh and new experience.
It’s a play that most people use as their point of entry into the world of Shakespeare. A lot of school groups, community companies take it on every year. Do you agree that it seems to have grown in popularity in recent years? Why do you think that is?
It seems to be popular these days, up there with As You Like It. Maybe it’s because there’s an optimism in the air — it reflects a mood that wasn’t there in the arts community earlier in the decade, when we saw a lot of Julius Caesars!
What I like is that the balances are good in this play — the various plots are balanced against each other effectively. It can be a tricky thing to maintain, but I’m proud of the balance we have here. I’m sure that in the time that the show was continuing on in California while I started preparing things here in Red Bank, it’s grown and changed. But we’re all invested in this same production; we’re all going in the same direction.
Well, it sounds, as always, like you’re having a blast bringing Mr. Shakespeare back to the stage.
This is just Shakespeare at this most delightful — he was clearly writing for the fun of it. It’s a comedy with a capital C, and all of the promises that comedy makes.
There’s an order to it all, too; it’s entirely hopeful in tone but not saccharine — the sweetness is tempered here by Puck. All in all, it’s just a wonderfully positive, utterly delightful world to splash around in! And if I could do anything in the world, I’d have the Powers That Be at Disney and Pixar hire me to direct an animated Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’d think we’d blow kids out of the water with it; make Shakespeare awesome and cool.