VST dreams of ‘Midsummer’ in Fall

Thomas Emerson

On Shakespeare’s tombstone is written the following inscription:

Good friend for Jesus sake


To dig the dust enclosed here.

Blessed be the man that spares

these stones,

And cursed be he that moves

my bones.

It’s a macabre memo – and an effective one, for no one has yet disturbed his remains. But some believe that under this inscription lies not Shakespeare’s body, but the body of his work – original manuscripts of everything he wrote. If so, then the so-called curse becomes a directive to future Shakespearean interpreters: One can almost hear the Bard telling them, “Don’t bother looking for me here. All that’s left of me is my plays. Work with them.”

Director Peter Brook once claimed that every performance of Shakespeare is an interpretation. After all, we can’t interview Shakespeare and determine what he wanted; “the author,” as French philosopher Roland Barthes famously claimed, “is dead.” Shakespeare is nothing but bones and dust, unable to offer assistance in the interpretation of his texts. We’re left to our own devices.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” confronts us with exactly this reality. Theseus comments that “the best [plays] are but shadows, and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them.” He’s talking about the limitations of theater, but his words also speak to the demands of interpretation: The texts we encounter on the page or stage are but vague shadows waiting to be made into living, breathing bodies by our own imaginations. Shakespeare may be dust, but his plays are sleeping beauties, ready to be brought to life by the kiss of the right prince.

Or the right princes: VST’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” directed by Marc Napolitano and Shaun Malleck, was a case study in how imaginative minds can bring vague shadows to life. Over the years, certain traditions (puffy pants, swordplay, histrionic line readings) have adhered themselves to Shakespeare’s plays like barnacles to a wharf. But these traditions necessarily quash original interpretation. Napolitano and Malleck, however, scraped these accretions from “Dream,” transforming the warhorse into a sexy, imaginative romp through space and time.

Particularly creative was their decision to “update” (to quote the directors’ notes) the play’s Athenian strand to a modern setting, pitting Theseus (Matt Capaldo) against Hippolyta (Sarah Reisert) in a corporate merger. Although I would quibble with the use of the word “update” (Shakespeare’s plays are as much a creation of our own time as they are of his), their choice to contemporize this “Dream” grounded a play that has built-in tendencies towards flight of fancy.

I was particularly impressed by Capaldo, whose wood-noted voice and crisp diction reminded me of a cross between Burton and Gielgud. And Reisert played Hippolyta as a pouty woman’s libber (one could picture this gal burning bras in younger days), a nice contrast to her firm-voiced husband-to-be. It’s a shame that we couldn’t see more of these two fine actors.

While Theseus and Hippolyta are the first characters to appear in “Dream,” they’re not the key players. (Neither are the lovers.) For if we read “Dream” as a play about interpretation, then the mechanicals are suddenly forced into the spotlight. After all, their futile attempts at putting on a play reveal interpretations stuck in shadows and imaginations bounded by reality. (This was illustrated nicely, though accidentally, when Chris Kendrix (Snug) tossed his hat in the air – and it hit the theatre’s ceiling.) Nick Marini (Bottom), the mechanicals’ titular leader, gleefully soaked up the spotlight, boo-hooing like some Shakespearean Bert Lahr and hamming it up as only Bottom can.

But in my mind, the scene stealer here was Andrew Pucci (Peter Quince), whose perpetually perturbed voice and exasperated stance during “Pyramus and Thisbe” perfectly suggested a director who has a vision but, for the life of him, can’t figure out how to execute it.

The mechanicals were, unquestionably, the life-blood of this production. But they were identified in the program notes as “sad victims of a success-oriented society” who “have been left by the wayside.” The mechanicals are neither sad nor abandoned; rather, they are absolutely essential to the play and its society. For out of all the characters, they alone participate in the act of theatrical creation which both originates the onstage world and provides it with an avenue for escape.

In fact, if one were to play a game of biographical associations with “Dream’s” characters, it would be a mechanic – Peter Quince – who would be most like the glimpses of Shakespeare we catch in his plays: a creator constantly concerned with theatre’s limitations and possibilities.

Lastly, there are the lovers. Nothing screams love more than “Dream,” but within the play Shakespeare rarely calls love by its proper name. Instead, he describes it as a transformation, a transportation – a translation. The prefix “trans” means “away from” and, accordingly, the love depicted in “Dream” make possible a reimagination of the self that turns current reality, as Demetrius says, into something “small and indistinguishable.” In effect, falling in love is not much different from interpretation – which is simply the reimagination of a text.

While we’re on the subject of transformations, out of the four lovers I was most impressed by Daniel Scully. He’s an irrepressibly energetic actor – and such histrionic energy must carefully tread the line between character and caricature.

But Scully did a fine job of transforming his energetic self into a lively, oft-inspired Lysander. The overly-saccharine and insult-ridden language of “Dream’s” lovers seems deliberately crafted to poke fun at the trite expressions of Cupid-struck youth – and Scully nailed the parody with his tongue-in-cheek delivery and dopey love-struck faces.

Just before the final curtain, as they lined up for a curtain call, it became quite clear that the huge cast would be too large to fit, side by side, across the stage. So they burst forth from the proscenium and made their way into the audience – just like the production itself, which ventured beyond traditional notions of Shakespeare to enact a new reality – a new interpretation of the text. Malleck, Napolitano, and VST breathed new life into the body of the Bard’s work. I’m almost certain that Shakespeare would have been proud. (Too bad we can’t dig him up to ask.)

Bravo, VST.