Tuesday, April 28, 2009

My Dream Production of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Unlike a lot of directors, I've always believed Shakespeare's comedies should actually be funny. Actually, to be fair, most directors try to make them funny, but all too often, they're not very funny themselves, so the result is pretty boring.

The scripts themselves usually do have lots of funny bits in them, one only needs to present them in funny ways to complete the task. Therein lies the rub.

Most people try to make A Midsummer Night's Dream beautiful, even though none of the characters in the play act beautiful. Most of them are self-obsessed, boorish assholes--which is where the comedy comes in.

My dream project would be a film of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It would mostly work on stage, but, since it's a dream project, there are a couple of special effects I'd like to add, but probably not what you think.

The play has two worlds. The human world, which despite having classic Greek heroes as characters, the people are petty and incompetent and have a much higher opinion of themselves than they should.

Then there's the fairy world. Here's where most directors go wrong. The fairy world is a sort of absurd reflection of the human world. If the humans have over-inflated egos, the fairies have insanely over-inflated egos. If the humans make stupid mistakes, the fairies make three-stooges level mistakes.

Since it's a film project, I'd make the fairies actually fairy size, maybe a foot tall. This presents a slight problem when Bottom encounters Titania, but since he's enchanted anyway, it's no problem to shrink him down for the scenes of him amongst the fairies.

If the fairies are a reflection of the human world, then I'd have them create their world using found objects from the human world. A thimble might make a nice hat. A cup could be a wagon, a handkerchief a coat and so on. The fairies aren't beautiful. They have big noses and big feet and big ears. Their hair is a mess and they have no taste at all. They believe the are beautiful though, so the actors would have to present themselves like they were really grand, even though they're just ridiculous.

Usually there's a problem with the four human lovers. Most directors cast four equally beautiful young people which becomes a problem because four equally beautiful young people are basically interchangeable so there's no conflict (and no comedy) when they fall in love with the wrong person. The audience must have a sense of who belongs with who just by looking at them. That gives them some concern that they end up with the right lover.

Hermia and Lysander belong together and Helena and Demetrius belong together, but at the beginning of the play, Helena believes she should be with Lysander and Demetrius believes he should be with Hermia. Now, how do you make this funny instead of tragic?

Since these four are supposed to be teenagers, why not use high-school stereotypes? Hermia is a cheerleader, she could even wear a cheerleader outfit, and Lysander is the quarterback on the football team, he could wear a letter sweater. They have perfect hair and perfect smiles and in the Athens High School Yearbook, they would be the most beautiful couple. They're the kind of people who are so perfect, it's fun to hate them.

Since most of the comedy comes from Helena and Demetrius, why not make them nerds? Hermia calls Helena a "maypole" so maybe she's the tallest of the four, much taller than Demetrius. Demetrius should be short and scrawny. When he demands Hermia's hand at the beginning of the play, the audience should react like "dude, give it up".

Now, this set up gives you unlimited comedic possibilities whenever these four are on stage. Stereotypes are funny, no matter what anybody says, so just get over it. The adage "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" comes up several times in the play, and having Helena and Demetrius realize they're really hot for each other at the end plays into that.

What's funny about the mechanicals is that they're actors playing actors. There's a good bit of comedy already in the script, but there's much more to be had if you cast actors who match the type of actor each character represents. Then it becomes a matter of trusting them to find their own sensibilities about the character and the situation and develop the comedy already in it.

A director should probably spend more rehearsal time with the mechanicals than with any of the other sets of actors. I would look for people who are not only really good character actors, but also good at improvisation and use that improvisational sensibility to bring out the comedy. Fortunately, they are written as fairly mature characters, so you can hire fairly mature and experienced actors. Bottom is, of course, the plum role here, but any of the mechanicals have the potential of stealing the show so don't scrimp on these guys.

A lot of people spend a lot of time on Puck, but Puck really is just the catalyst for the other characters, so don't over do it with Puck. He should be well spoken, of course, because he has that last soliloquy. Other than that, Puck tends to be the straight-man for other characters, so he should be a very generous actor.

I like the idea of double-casting Theseus and Hippolyta with Oberon and Titania. What's fun with that is you have them set their characters at level five when they're human, but level ten when they're fairies. What's funny about these characters is their egos, and since you're working with actors that shouldn't be a problem. The comedy is pretty broad here, so don't be afraid of going over-the-top when they're in fairy form. They should be loud and brassy and bossy and completely unaware of how completely incompetent and impotent they really are.

The other characters should react to them like they're sucking up to the boss, because they are. The fairies act very obedient and respectful when the king and queen are looking, but as soon as they turn their backs, the fairies show how they really feel about being ordered around like that.

I knew a fellow one time who was directing this play, and he told me he wanted it to be "a gay sexual fantasia". Those were his exact words. When I saw the finished product, that's exactly what he got and I can't tell you how dull it was. Thank god he cut out about twenty pages or I never would have made it all the way through. I don't pretend to think my interpretation is the ultimate version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, but I gotta think it'd be better than that!

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