“Lord, what fools these mortals be!” Puck says in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Yale Dramatic Association’s opening performance on Wednesday night captured not only the humorous foolishness, but also the whimsicality, playfulness and magic of this classic Shakespearean comedy. In a departure from the original, however, many of the scenes play out against the backdrop of thoroughly modern settings. In doing so, the Dramat injects the timeless work with a contemporary edge.
The modernity of this adaptation works, even if it takes a little getting used to. Hermia and Lysander wear backpacks as they run through the forest. Lysander and Demetrius banter with rap and toss a football to each other. The two couples participate in a yoga class led by Puck. In one scene, the cast breaks out into a song from Disney’s The Lion King, and characters at another point appear to read from editions of Fifty Shades of Grey.
The show invites the audience to participate in the production more than many traditional renditions. Puck sits in the aisle, right next to audience members, for large portions of the show. At first I thought Rebecca Brudner ’16 might have been out of character, as she leaned over to smile and giggle at a person sitting next to the aisle. I was wrong. Puck was very much in character, and was simply engaging with the audience. In a theater as small as the University Theatre, this allowed for an added layer of intimacy and liveliness.
The modern adaptation demands flexibility from the actors and actresses. The cast must flit between scenes in the forest outside Athens, interspersed with scenes in school cafeterias and bathrooms. The actors must convince the audience that they are authentic versions of Shakespeare’s characters, even within these 21st century settings.
The cast certainly rose to the challenge. The scenes in the school were endearing, honestly acted and lighthearted, while the scenes in the forest were alluring and mysterious. It might seem that having such different settings would cause the play to feel choppy in its timeline, but the actors transition smoothly between each setting. They do so by maintaining a youthful exuberance throughout the entire play, bringing practical (and at times childish) humor to each scene.
Bottom (Eric Sirakian ’15) really shone in his ability to master the character transformation this comedy requires. He showed the audience gleeful obedience (to Titania), drama (in the Pyramus suicide scene) and a love of practical humor (as he licks Wall’s behind).
The set is nothing short of magical, and succeeds in evoking the allure and mystery of the forest outside Athens, to which the Athenians escape for much of the play. Rising balloons, towers of dimly lit lamps and an eerily lit moon that changes set the mood for these scenes. The moment when Titania (Juliana Canfield ’14) awakes to find herself in love with Bottom is a high point of set design in the production. As she wakes up, deep, earthy, rumbling music comes on, and the intense red and orange light bathes the stage.
Director Stephen Kaliski’s rendition is alternatively very sexualized, yet also sweetly innocent at times. Perhaps the most surprising part of his adaptation comes in an interaction between Titania and Bottom. Titania has already awoken to find herself in love with Bottom, who has turned into a donkey. Bottom disappears under the folds of Titania’s wide skirt, and she proceeds to gasp and shudder for at least a full minute. The scene inevitably made for a few uncomfortable laughs from the audience.
Even so, the scene represents one of the most brave and daring adaptations of the whole performance. This scene — and other modern flourishes — plays up Midsummer’s naturally whimsical and playful side. But for diehard Shakespeare devotees, the play might prove a disappointing deviation from the classic.
Correction: Feb. 21
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Titania, and incorrectly referenced the play’s text as Old English.