Alexis Baigue, Sophia Beratta, and Kenn Hopkins Jr. as fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo courtesy of Lauren Parker.
By Rob Mohr
Since 2018, the American Shakespeare Center (a theater in Staunton, Virginia dedicated to “recover[ing] the joys and accessibility of Shakespeare’s theatre, language, and its practices through performance and education”) has descended upon Sewanee as part of its nationwide tour. This year, from February 6 to 8, ASC brought to the Guerry Auditorium stage one of the Bard’s best known plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and one of his least known, Cymbeline, or, as it was rechristened for the tour, Imogen.
The ASC brand of Shakespeare is a far cry from the way most people encounter Shakespeare: boring, awkward, and read-aloud in high school English class. Instead, the ASC offers style, humor, and vibrant performance art with their work. It’s an attempt to capture the essence of Shakespeare and deliver it to a 21st century audience.
Obviously, I’m a little too young to remember the 17th century, but if going to an ASC production mimics the feeling of what Shakespeare would have given audiences back then, I can understand what the big deal about his work is.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the Thursday night opener for the ASC’s residency in Sewanee, and it was a fitting choice. Executed in 1920’s New Orleans style costumes, complete with bizarre but endearing swamp monsters as Titania’s fairies, the play captures the absurdity of the forest (or in this case, bayou) mischief that makes up the bulk of the play.
Topher Embrey played an excellent Nick Bottom, bringing the swaggering ridiculousness of the character to life the way his speeches in the text deserve. After seeing Embrey in Saturday night’s Imogen as Cloten as well (more on that later), I realized he carries an improvisational air on stage with flourishes that ignite the crowd. Whether or not these touches were written in, I’m not sure, but they were highly effective.
That improvisational style does have its shortcomings though. One of the closing scenes of the play, which featured a play performed by a merry band of fools, including Bottom, featured a drawn out, comically dramatic death scene. Bottom dragged this scene out for just a little too long, and it crossed the terrifying rope bridge from comedy to desperation. It’s unfortunate because it was unnecessary, the scene was hilarious, as the audience’s cheers and laughter demonstrated, and didn’t need to last as long as it did.
Thursday night’s performance set the bar rather high for Saturday night’s Imogen, and the ASC cleared it from an impact perspective. The audience was buzzing the entire two hours with laughter, cheers and even a few gasps. The decision to halve the number of available seats in the auditorium for Imogen had a tangible effect on the feel in the audience. I sat towards the back for Thursday night’s show, and found myself missing a few lines and feeling a little disconnected. Sitting in the front half of Guerry Saturday night, where almost all the seats were filled, felt electrifying and engaging.
More likely than not, you haven’t read Cymbeline, and I must confess that if it wasn’t for my Shakespeare II class that I’m currently in, I probably would not have read it either. It’s one of the Bard’s most ambitious plays, with so many plot lines going on at once that the final act features, according to our own Shakespeare Studies director, Dr. Pamela Macfie, 26 revelations of varying magnitude. The modern military aesthetic that the play is served in only adds to the lofty goals that drama sets. Frankly, it feels like Max Fischer’s play at the end of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore in terms of complexity.
I say all this to give context to my only gripe with the production. I feel that in its pursuit of engagement and excitement with its audience, it outruns some of the darker qualities of its characters. Cloten, played by the aforementioned Embrey, is portrayed as an idiotic, whiny, playboyish son of the Queen on stage to great laughs and cheers from the crowd. However, in the text, Cloten is much more sinister. His plot to dress up as Imogen’s husband, then hunt Imogen down and violate her is deeply disturbing. On stage it becomes a funny man in clothes prancing around like a fool. It would have been interesting to see this important bit of characterization presented as a sucker punch to the audience’s perception of Cloten’s as a harmlessly dimwitted puppy of a character.
All in all though, the ASC got the big picture right. Shakespeare’s “joys and accessibility” were faithfully offered to the crowd in a stylish manner that will not be soon forgotten. I might even call it inspirational. My roommate, after seeing Imogen, now wants to stage a play in our dorm room. I’m certain that in 400 years, the Sewanee Dorm Room Theatre Center will seek to recreate the magic of it, much like the ASC has done for Shakespeare.