CanStage attempts to inject some local flavour into this Dream
by Stuart Munro
While sitting in the High Park Amphitheatre (one of my favourite venues in the city) snacking on my dinner, three men wearing “crew” t-shirts came on to the stage and set up a backdrop that could only have been inspired by cottage country, complete with Muskoka chairs. It was at this point that Dave Ross pointed out a note in the program that said “director Richard Rose has given the play a unique Toronto twist, bringing it closer than ever to High Park today.” As the crew donned Mountie costumes and a set of bagpipes ushered in Theseus and Hippolyta, I knew I was in for a Canadian Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Now, I usually do my best to keep an open mind about setting and design choices like this; Shakespeare (and especially this play) has been done to death, and finding new interpretations can be very successful in bringing out new thoughts from these well known plays. But something about this looked more thrown together than thought out.
This ended up not being the case—at least not entirely. Dmitry Chepovetsky as Theseus is presented as something more of a Premier than a Duke (who still has say over who marries whom) with Tamara Podemski as Hippolyta, his somewhat unhappy trophy bride. Both actors also play Oberon and Titania respectively, clad in utilikilt, plaid, torn leggings, and a hat with deer antlers for Oberon. It’s a curious look, but one that fits the theme. Chepovetsky and Podemski both clearly understand their text, but there wasn’t any real chemistry between the two as either pair.
Slightly more successful are the four lovers: Sophia Kolinas as Hermia, Eric Morin as Lysander, Sarah Sherman as Helena, and Ali Momen as Demetrius. The scenes in the forest involving all four are hilarious and well staged and I’d’ve liked to have seen more of this, even if their energy is a bit unfocused at times. I was genuinely disappointed when it became clear we were nearing the end of the evening and there would be no more of these scenes. Not knowing the play well, I wonder if several separate scenes had been condensed into a larger one. While their costumes (ranging from a grey suit for Demetrius to Helena’s power walking gear) all fit the time and place, they all appeared to have come off the shelf and lacked a sense of design unity.
The accents may not always work, but the interaction between the group is always spot on.
The mechanicals are this production’s highlight, and have been transformed into a medley of Canadian stereotypes: Peter Quince has become Pierre le Coing (Pierre Simpson), Tom Snout is now Tom Chow, from Newfoundland (Richard Lee), Francis Flute is the Russian Francis Filchenkov (Mark Crawford), and Nick Bottom (John Cleland) is now a real estate agent. The accents may not always work, but the interaction between the group is always spot on. Crawford’s transformation from the baritone Francis to the soprano Thisbe stopped the show with a round of applause, and hearing the Asian Lee describe his chink in the wall made for a humorous (and uncomfortable) racial faux-pas. These three all double as Titania’s fairies, to hilarious effect. A fifth mechanical, Chanel the second grade teacher, was drawn from the audience to play the Lion. Beware those who sit in the front row! Cleland as Bottom was appropriately over the top while playing Pyramus, but his scenes with Titania fell a bit flat, and I feel again that this material has been truncated perhaps too much.
From a design perspective, this is the dullest Dream I’ve ever seen. Karyn McCallum’s set design has removed the multi-leveled parts of the stage and lined the playing area with dark green foliage. Most characters are dressed in greys or blacks or reds, and the only real colour on stage are the flowers that (rather magically) appear once the characters enter the forest. But against the backdrop of muted tones, these bright colours seem out of place, and look a bit arts and crafty.
The High Park Amphitheatre seems to be experimenting with a new sound system, and actors all had individual mics this year. A few kinks still need to be worked out as there were some funny echo effects and missed lines due to mics being off.
Director Richard Rose keeps the pacing up and never lets the energy flag, but the truncated nature of this production (it runs about 90 minutes) means it’s over before you really know what’s happened. There’s no substance to any of it. The performances are all generally good, but except for a few key moments with the mechanicals, nothing stands out. The Canadian interpretation could have been taken even further as well. Since the mechanicals have all been renamed, why not refer to Toronto instead of Athens, and make Theseus the Premier instead of the Duke (or even the mayor. Think of the Rob Ford jokes!).
Ultimately, this Dream is a fun time. The performances are generally strong, and the pacing and comedy all work well. I only wish a little more thought had been put into the show’s design and setting.