A Midsummer Night's Dream goes punk

By Amy Shaunette

It’s a good thing that Shakespeare is dead. “Blasphemy,” you cry, clutching your leather-bound anthology. But there are reasons for this outlandish statement: one, directors who take on Shakespeare’s plays have unlimited creative license, and two, William isn’t around to witness the mistakes these directors inevitably make with said creative license. As all sixteen-year-old drivers know, getting a license doesn’t mean you won’t have an accident.Shakespeare’s beloved comedy, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” is currently onstage at the Guthrie, one of the many nationally acclaimed theaters in the Twin Cities. Director Joe Dowling’s production has had a successful ten-year run, and for good reasons-it is brilliant, from the set design to the acting. However, updating Shakespeare is a risky business, and while Dowling almost pulls it off, I can hear Billy moaning, though quietly, in his grave.

A considerable number of us Mac Weekly staffers have been in a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at some point in our childhood (For me, it was in fifth grade, and I played Cobweb the fairy.), and often perceptions of literature and theater are colored by early experiences with the text in question. So maybe the production’s modern setting turned me off because my fifth grade production was set in ancient Athens-or maybe “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” just shouldn’t take place in the 21st century, no matter how talented the director.

To be fair, the contemporary time period setting manifests itself almost exclusively in costume choices, but this doesn’t mean the time frame is minimized. Theseus and Hippolyta, the presiding Athenian royalty, seem more like president and first lady, constantly flocked by Secret Service men sporting black suits and earpieces. Hermia wears a 1960s-style brocade dress; Helena, a skirt suit. Demetrius, Hermia’s betrothed, wears a military uniform while her true love, Lysander, looks sloppy in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. Frankly, it’s a little weird.

Even weirder is Dowling’s crossing of the boundary between musical theater and non-musical theater. One would think a Shakespeare play has no room for song and dance breaks, but think again. Dowling’s cast sings, shimmys and-sit down for this one-they rap. At least they attempt to rap. Not weird enough for you? One song near the end of the play sounds like a church hymn.

Dowling’s one major faux-pas is his complete overhaul of the play-within-a-play,a handful of scenes in which simple Athenians gather to rehearse, and eventually perform, a hopelessly amateur play for the Athenian court. Except in this version, they aren’t simple-minded Athenians with cute jobs like tinker and joiner. Instead, they are white trash-a beer guzzling sports fan; a tacky woman with pink jeans, platinum mall bangs and a fanny pack; and a cheesy middle-aged dude with touristy, Miami Vice-inspired fashion. Instead of loveable, the characters are annoying; their shamble of a play is more embarrassing than it is endearing, and the jokes are cheap.

Updating Shakespeare is a bold move, and it doesn’t always fail. Our generation’s favorite high school movie, “10 Things I Hate About You,” is based on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” and a lesser known, top-notch cult flick bears the title “A Midsummer Night’s Rave.” Dowling gives it a respectable try, and the actors almost make it work, but ultimately most of the departures from the original play are disappointing-most, but not all.

The fairy scenes are where the play really comes alive, revealing Shakespeare’s uncanny talent and, in this production, the accomplishments of the cast and the creative team. Dowling’s interpretations of the fairies are truly stunning. Most notably is the set, which is breathtaking. Designed by Frank Hallinan Flood, the forest fairyland centers on the secret lair of Titania, the fairy queen, a round bush-like structure that rises up from the ground and opens like an oyster. Inside, the hideout looks like a cave, with metallic walls and gold stalagmites; the bed is whimsical and sexy, reminiscent of the genie bottle in “I Dream of Jeannie.”

Once you’ve caught your breath after the unveiling of Titania’s bedchamber, the fairy costumes will steal the air right out of your throat. Most of them have mohawks or fire-colored hair (or both!), and they all wear full-body versions of tattoo sleeves. Some sport metallic vests and studded booty shorts-in essence, the fairies are punks. Puck’s costume consists of a red leather vest and matching briefs-these are not your everyday fairies. Oberon, king of the fairies, has medieval-style armor that manages to be both outrageously glittery and ultra-macho. With his stiff white hair, he seems more like an evil warrior than a fairy. And Titania’s appearance captures her immortality, with a wig of white blonde curls bordering on mermaid-inspired dreadlocks and a sparkly body suit that creates the illusion of iridescent skin.

If you can collect yourself after the pleasant surprise of the set design and costumes, pay attention to the acting, because it is excellent. The cast is largely composed of recent graduates of the Guthrie Experience (GEx) and the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program-young actors with, judging by their performances in the play, bright futures. Although sometimes their moods seem a bit off-Helena is more angry than she is hurt, and Titania fails to express the extent of her powers-the cast as a whole gives a captivating performance.

Ultimately, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a play so good it’s hard to completely screw up, and Dowling’s production promises to deliver what every night at the theater should: enchantment, excitement and a whole lot of glitter.