By James Foritano
Shakespeare must have felt himself to be living in an increasingly and perilously fast-paced society when he penned A Midsummer Night’s Dream — still one of his most popular comedies in 1595-96. Earlier in that rumbustious century, England’s Henry VIII decided that he couldn’t abide an Italian pope telling him what he could and couldn’t do in his own marriage bed. So, Henry nationalized not only divorce laws but religion and all its far-reaching properties in England — thank you very much.
Actors’ Shakespeare Project is presenting Shakespeare’s masterpiece through early June in a production directed by Patrick Swanson. In this classic favorite of the season, Theseus, the duke of Athens, in Shakespeare’s parable of his own life and times, is also in a hurry to wed his intended, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Recent antagonists on the battlefield though they’ve been, Theseus is impatient to leave all that behind them by tying the cord of amity in a royal marriage.
In fact, wills Theseus, since two aristocratic couples are also contemplating marriage, although (small detail) to each other’s partners, why not ram through a trifecta, with all three crossing the finish line at once!
Whether through feminine wisdom or that and a combination of hard knocks on the battlefield, Hippolyta cautions not haste but prudence. Let the moon slowly swell to fullness, counsels Theseus’ bride, in its own time not in the hurried time of the state of Athens.
Theseus seems to listen but he can’t hear the discord brewing all around his own royal will. And how could he be expected to do when discord is also resounding in the magical world of the fairies.
Just as in Athens, right at the top of society, all is not smooth between Titania, Queen of the Fairies, and her royal mate, Oberon.
And, just like a man and, not incidentally a head of state, Oberon thinks he can ‘put the fix in’ with the help of his super-confident and super-fast, right hand fairy, Robin “Puck” Goodfellow.
In a parody of these arrogant royals who think they know better than to consult the slow and steady remedies of Nature and human nature, are a pack of “rustics” from the lower ranks of Athenian society who plan to rehearse and present a dramatic celebration of the mythical love and marriage of Pyramis and Thisbe. Self-important and ham-handed neophytes but super-confident, these rustics present the worst of the royals for all of us except these very royals to see.
Meanwhile, outside the well-intentioned but fantastic dreams of royals, lovers and rustics, real ‘beasts’ of jealously, spite, hate, rabid confusion, prowl and bite, threatening to turn every comically titillating pratfall into a painfully twisted joint – even mortal injury.
Thank the players that we can all go home to peace and sanity while carrying vivid memories of another world, so far away and yet so close – so downright funny and so deadly weird.
P.S. Since A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a tale of witless turns of behavior told with Shakespearian wit and pace, dipping into the text to absorb what we don’t like to recognize as just us being our scandalous selves is good preparation.
P.P.S. Even acting out some of the scenes, if you will, helps to appreciate thoughts on life and art which, no sound-bites, are then doubly appreciated when voiced on stage with professional tongue and heart.
Whoever said “brush up your Shakespeare” was onto a life-long project, with rewards!
(The Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues through June 3 at the Multicultural Arts Center, 41 Second St., Cambridge, Mass. For more information and tickets, visit multiculturalartscenter.org.)