By Madison Yardumian
Hip-hop dancing fairies and genderbending Shakespeare love stories are not things I thought I needed in my life–that is, until I attended Saturday evening performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From April 5 to 8, Pomona College’s theatre department presented the Shakespearean play in Seaver Theatre. The show was directed by Carolyn Ratteray and choreographed by Elm Pizarro, and played for three evening performances and two matinees.
I came into the theatre excited yet hesitant, bearing in mind that the perceived loftiness of Shakespearean texts, a loftiness that has the potential to create distance between the actors and the audience and the actors and their script, undoes many productions of Shakespeare. Luckily for audiences, A Midsummer Night’s Dream eluded this pitfall. Combining all the intended wit of the play and then some, the show was a dazzling, colorful rendition of the well-known story complete with dreamy sets (adorned with graffiti, flowers, and stunning fairy lights), same-sex relationships, Shakespearean verses performed as rap, and striking hip-hop choreography.
The play follows a slightly convoluted love triangle that later morphs into something of a love square before being resolved. Hermia (Maya Baron PZ ’21) is in love with Lysander (Gbeke Fawehinmi PO ’19). It is worth noting that while Lysander is typically a male role, this production cast an actress as Lysander instead. The majority of the show’s characters were listed on the casting call as “Open gender,” and the director fully intended to cast a queer relationship within the show. Plot-wise, Hermia’s father (Owen Halstad PO ’21) does not approve of Hermia and Lysander’s budding romance because he wants his daughter to marry Demetrius (Ben Hogoboom PO ’19), who left a relationship with Hermia’s childhood friend, Helena (Winnie Stack PZ ’18) to pursue Hermia. Hermia, however, does not share her father’s enthusiasm for the match. Meanwhile, Helena is still in love with Demetrius, and is actively trying to win him back. After Lysander and Hermia are denied the right to wed, they flee to the woods and plan to elope. However, Demetrius gets wind of this and goes into the woods himself to track down Hermia, and is followed by Helena, still in pursuit of his affections. While in the woods, the audience is introduced to the surreal word of fairies Oberon (Shanawar Zahoor PZ ’21) and Titania (Megan Marshall PO ’20), who are feuding. Mischief from Oberon’s right-hand man Puck (Berto Gonzalez PO ’20), leads to chaos between all the lovers. The show closes as a true Shakespearean comedy should—happily, capped by a fairytale ending for all our characters and a witty soliloquy entreating the audience to applaud. By the end of the play, the audience did not appear to need much convincing.
There are so many moving pieces that make a production. A show can’t effectively go on without solid acting, and in the case of Midsummer the acting was extremely well-done. A major stand out would be Winnie Stack, whose rendition of Helena’s many soliloquies regarding the plight of unrequited love and the traditional (and often constricted) role of women in romantic pursuits was striking. Her performance made audiences cringe, laugh, and feel for her in all the right places. This intensity was matched in a very different way by Maya Baron and Gbeke Fawehinmi’s chemistry as a couple—their loving and complex queer relationship certainly did not disappoint audiences, who couldn’t help but root for them. Further, the movement of all the actors and actresses playing fairies was flowy, dreamy, and consistent, and Berto Gonzales’ ending soliloquy as Puck, the well-known “If we shadows have offended” didn’t rest on the familiar nature of the text. It was funny, cheeky, and meaningful—a fitting closing to a show that truly encapsulated these attributes.
The show’s success also can’t be considered without keeping in mind the work of the crew and production team. The lighting was extremely well-done and well-attuned to the play’s narrative arc, and the make-up and costumes, particularly for the fairies, were creative and made these larger-than-life characters even more mystifying. Set changes ran extremely smoothly and efficiently, never pulling the audience out of the moment. The set design was stunning, its visual appeal made the various spaces the characters entered come to life in distinct and exciting ways.
The overall message of the play, beyond what is made blatant from the text, is left up to the director’s vision. This vision manifests itself in directorial decisions that marry the acting, technical, and visual facets of a show into a cohesive unit. One of these directorial decisions was the inclusion of hip-hop dancing and rapping in the production, which Ratteray explains in her Director’s Note. There, she discloses that she imagines the play’s ending as a moment where “the old structure is dismantled to fashion something anew,” and compares this to how she conceives hip-hop—as “a love story heralding the creation of something new.” Emphasized quite nicely in the parallelism of these lines is that both the play and hip-hop are connected in the shared opportunity for creation they present. Moreover, she connects hip-hop to Shakespeare in that both are forms of spoken verse that “are meant to be heard.” In this, she challenges the way in which so many young people see Shakespeare; she asserts that Shakespeare is not a dusty text to behold in your 12th grade AP Lit courses or your Letters GE, but something to engage with, something to feel and invest in.
The creative decisions made by the production weren’t out of touch with how I believe Shakespeare can, and perhaps should, be interpreted. Shakespeare should be fun, daring, and most importantly, constantly evolving. The Bard had such a powerful presence in his time and far beyond because his work speaks to fundamental facets of the human experience. He created entirely new narratives or built upon old ones with new dimension and relevance. He needed an audience so he made his stories matter to people.
In a similar vein, the cast and crew of A Midsummer Night’s Dream made their show matter to me. The production’s unconventional choices remind audiences how their identities impact the way they see art, and invoke a modern representation of characters and their lives that is refreshing to witness. They allowed the words of the play to speak to emotions that have remained a human constant since Shakespeare’s time, and gave his words new depth by placing them in a contexts with more current resonance. By capturing the costs and triumphs of romance, reminding us of our penchant for the fantastical, and topping it all off with a pinch of mischief, A Midsummer Night’s Dream spellbindingly and unapologetically captivated its audience members and gave them an experience they never knew they needed, but one they most certainly won’t forget.
Image Credit: Pomona College