Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Sexual politics and the fledgling IndyShakes production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

In this time of artistic privation, many of us can be grateful for the Indianapolis Shakespeare
'A Midzoomer Night's Gream" is this year's stand-in for a post-pandemic production.
s placeholding virtual production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," converted technologically as an appetizer for the 2021 season into a tasty "A Midzoomer Night's Dream."

An hourlong version of the Bard's most magical comedy can be accessed through the company's website through Sept. 12. Directed by Lauren Morris, assisted by Ryan Artzberger, the Zoom version necessarily is heavily cut and requires some stitching together to draw in the skeins of the zany plot. Bottom the Weaver is the presiding spirit of this "Dream" in more ways than one.

Most stage productions of this play strike me as posing the most athletic challenges Shakespearean actors face. The cavorting and confusion involving the four young lovers in the forest near Athens mimics the craziness young love often takes on: rich in jealousy, the waxing and waning of passion, and a readily aggravated tendency to feel wounded or abandoned. "A Midzoomer Night's Dream" is full of apt technical tricks, moving squares of each actor around the screen to represent changing alliances and confrontations.

Trying to allow for some of the deep cuts in the script is difficult, and I can only hope much of the original will be restored by a full stage production in 2021. Even so, IndyShakes has embraced trimming the Bard closely as a defensible practice in reaching out to outdoor summertime audiences. This was unavoidable in its coming up with a two-hour version of "Hamlet" in 2019.

In a follow-up dialogue after "Midzoomer" runs its course, Morris and Artzberger explain their approach, defending the gender looseness in particular.  In one case, reassigning sex roles works quite well; in another, it fails. Let me explain.

To account for the failure first, I take nothing away from the excellence of the actors portraying Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen. The royal couple's resort to magic in advancing each side of their quarrel drives the madness that overtakes Demetrius, Lysander, Hermia, and Helena — lovers who are already blocked in the "rational" world of Athens by the legal sway parents in many traditional societies hold over marriage.

Jen Johansen and Constance Macy seem thoroughly invested in the bitter rhetoric and deft schemes of their characters, but I miss the sexual politics that Oberon and Titania are clearly meant to pursue. (Even their liines were exchanged in a few places, as though they were interchangeable figures like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.)

Authenticity nerds are free to remind me that all parts in the productions Shakespeare knew were played by men and boys. But that was more a matter of required practice than any gender fluidity espoused by the playwright. And the Oberon/Titania set-to is one his most memorable presentations of the eternal battle of the sexes; it may lack the humane gravitas of the conflicts in "The Taming of the Shrew" and "Much Ado About Nothing," but its male-female chess game is vivid and essential.

I thought the casting of Claire Wilcher as Nick Bottom was an inspired choice, however. The weaver's eagerness for a theatrical outlet and susceptibility to transformation, in addition to his sheer comic exuberance, suggest an amplitude greater than any conventional identity Bottom may have superficially. He is fundamental as well as superficial,  both in terms of the addled myth-play the Athenian tradesmen are preparing and the accidental role he must play as an ass, the temporary love-object of Titania.

I intend no comment on Wilcher as a person to claim as kudos that her skills and energy, the pitch of her voice and the way her facial expressions don't fall into either male or female stereotypes make her ideal for a gender-neutral portrayal of Bottom. The character can be fairly androgynous in interpretation, with no violence done to what Shakespeare has set down on the page. (I wish the directors had not felt it fitting to change Bottom's pronouns to she and her, however.)

When magic imposes an asinine character on Bottom, his susceptibility to a range of sensual pleasures (often given hints of sexual attraction in full performance) evokes something that suits an androgynous interpretation: Freud's theory of a polymorphous-perverse stage of infant development, in which physical pleasure later channeled sexually is initially spread over the entire spectrum of sensation. Shakespeare seems to foreshadow this insight (though I believe it's not much supported by post-Freudian psychology) in having the transformed Bottom so open to fantasy indulgence. And his curiosity is fully awakened: note how he wants to know something about each fairy assigned to cater to him.

The same openness is characteristic of the normal Bottom.  He seems to know more about the craft of theater than any of his tradesman fellows. His pushiness about taking on any or all of the roles in the Pyramus and Thisbe travesty is less a matter of ego than temperamental breadth. Wilcher portrays this expertly. Her performance struck me as indicating a recurring habit of Shakespeare's: talking about theater and acting in a way that works his profession into the action. Bottom is thus a tribute to the mutability of actors, their necessary penchant for what John Keats termed "negative capability," He cited that as a useful inclination for poets to take on characteristics of people and even other beings and things in order to render their reality.

Obviously, that's an actor's metier. And it has great resonance with Shakespeare's practice as a playwright. Serendipitously, that was driven home to me soon after I watched "A Midzoomer Night's Dream" when reading an essay by William Hazlitt, one of the best 19th-century literary critics. In his essay on "Troilus and Cressida," he compares Shakespeare's treatment of characters in that ancient story with Geoffrey Chaucer's.

Of the medieval poet, Hazlitt says: "He is as deeply implicated in the affairs of his personages as they could be themselves...Everything with him is intense and continuous — a working out of what went before." But here's the contrast. "Shakespeare never committed himself to his characters. He trifled, laughed, or wept with them as he chose. He had no prejudices for or against them; and it seems a matter of perfect indifference whether he shall be in jest or earnest....He saw both sides of a question...and he was at once an actor and spectator in the scene. If anything, he is too various and flexible; too full of transitions, of glancing lights, of salient points."

This apt description could apply to a host of Shakespeare's characters, from Hamlet to Bottom. I loved the richness of Wilcher's performance and, though the directors seemed to want to follow that actor's self-identity, I think the performance works so well as gender-neutral (so, leave references to Bottom the way the text has them). Suddenly we see Bottom as Every Person at His/Her/Its Best — open-minded, open-hearted, less likely to make narrow claims of ego and ideally susceptible to an expansive view of life's variability.

It's not just Bottom's dream that "hath no bottom," as the restored Bottom muses. It is Bottom in all respects: one of Shakespeare's essentially minor characters who represents nothing less than human nature, especially as it's available to any talented, well-trained interpreter.

IndyShakes has a host of those, and I await the 2021 staged production both eagerly and apprehensively.

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