Get into your car, get out to this Dream. Or, if you live farther than driving distance from Stratford, Ont., maybe get into a plane or onto a train.
Forgive the bastardized Billy Ocean. I’m just trying to get into the topsy-turvy, 1980s synth-pop vibe that animates director Chris Abraham’s gloriously uplifting and revivifying production of the most overdone of Shakespeare’s comedies.
I thought I could live without ever seeing another A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But how can you not love a version that features the comic genius Stephen Ouimette as Bottom barbecuing in a “Daddio of the Patio” apron at the beginning, then singing New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle amid a raging dance party at the end? (Consider that a warning, too: If you can’t, then you won’t.)
Bottom, of course, is the weaver and amateur actor transformed into a donkey who stars in the play-within-a-play that concludes A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His awful production of Pyramus and Thisbe is presented as a gift at the nuptials of Athenian rulers Theseus and Hippolyta, as well as those of the play’s quartet of lovers, finally and properly matched.
In Abraham’s vision of the show, however, the entirety of Dream is presented as a wedding gift – to two young men getting married in a Stratford, Ont., backyard. Thus, this Dream is presented with a host of young children (who play the fairies, not just cutely, but astutely, and never fail to bring a smile to your face) in the cast, an onstage wedding DJ providing synth underscoring and sound effects throughout, and the cream of the crop of Stratford’s acting company essaying unexpected roles and treating the show and their parts with the irreverent joy and anachronistic fun that you might in such a situation.
In a play that is about love and transformation, Abraham has, fittingly, made a few changes to the characters.
At the start of the play, Hermia (Bethany Jillard) wants to marry Lysander (Tara Rosling), but her father Egeus wants her to marry Demetrius (preening Mike Shara); on the outside looking in is Helena (Liisa Repo-Martell), who wants her ex Demetrius back. The twist here is that Lysander is played as a woman by a woman – and Rosling displays great nobility pleading her love in the role at the start. “I am beloved of beauteous Hermia: Why should not I then prosecute my right?” she says movingly, and with same-sex rights denied in so much of the world still, this acquires a powerful resonance that it usually does not (but which is probably roughly equivalent to the resonance the original situation had in Shakespeare’s time).
The other major shift is that Jonathan Goad and Evan Buliung play the monarchs of the fairy world, Oberon and Titania, and alternate between the roles. On opening night, Buliung was the Fairy Queen – and, despite his cis-male status, he was the best I have ever seen, regal and eerily otherworldly (and never for a moment like a panto dame). He and Goad, who takes great advantage of the production’s concept to ad lib and play to the audience, have a palpable sizzle in a part of the play that really feels like it takes place in another dimension. (Thank composer/sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne, who also plays the DJ, in part for this.)
Shakespeare at Stratford is not particularly known for sexual chemistry – but Jillard and Rosling have it in spades here too, especially in a cleverly staged and very hot scene that takes place away from the audience’s eyes inside of a camping tent set up on stage. Abraham allow endless opportunities for well-executed physical comedy here – Rosling pulls some fine Pepé le Pew moves when Lysander is under the influence of Puck’s love juice, while Shara gets many of the best moments preening as Demetrius, rotating slowly in Helena’s imagination, or throwing children-fairies across the stage in a fury.
The Mechanicals, which include Lally Cadeau as an uptight Peter Quince, are not perhaps the funniest I’ve seen – but, for once, their scenes seem in balance with the rest of the play. And, thanks to Abraham’s framing of the evening, I finally really understood why Shakespeare includes their performance of the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe at the end. These wise fools are showing what happens when you erect ridiculous walls (and Keith Dinicol is an especially ridiculous Wall here) between love; it’s that world, the one of tragedy, that is foolish, while the world Bottom describes – where “reason and love keep little company together” – is the happy and sensible one.
There are moments one could quibble with: Chick Reid’s Puck and Liisa Repo-Martell’s Helena are remarkably unremarkable in parts that are usually fan favourites, while the whole quartet of lovers occasionally blast their verse into oblivion amid the mayhem. Abraham’s production also ends in what seems like an endless competition of epilogues between Bottom, Oberon, Puck and Theseus – and it’s a shame that though Egeus is played as deaf in the play, a deaf actor wasn’t hired for this rare opportunity to play at Stratford.
But this is a production better to just love blindly. “There’s no sense in telling me the wisdom of the fool won’t set you free,” sings Bottom, who, by the end of the play, knows a thing or two about bizarre love triangles. And, yes, beyond the laughs and a few joyful tears, there is something about Abraham’s Dream that makes you feel as if you’ve been set free, particularly after an opening week of solid, but stuffy versions of classic plays at Stratford.