Fast Times with William Shakespeare

Impact Theatre brings A Midsummer Night's Dream into the '80s.

When Melissa Hillman first hatched a plan to produce an ’80s new
wave version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she
wasn’t sure if it would go over well. It is, after all, quite
challenging to mount the 16th-century comedy with the script left
pretty much intact, and still keep it fast-paced and entertaining. In
its original form, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a long,
complicated play with scads of plot twists that, when done wrong, can
seem tedious. But it’s also bawdy, sidesplittingly funny, and chock
full of themes that resonate with modern audiences: petty female
rivalries; falling in love and getting jilted; two guys conniving
against a tyrannical girlfriend; a group of slackers trying to make,
like, you know, art. It is, in other words, the very stuff of an ’80s
high school movie.

In Hillman’s production, each actor cultivates an ’80s persona that
amplifies the attributes of his or her character. For the most part it
works. Like most Shakespearean comedies, the original A Midsummer
Night’s Dream
centers on three social groups: the elite Athenians,
the blue-collar Athenians, and the fairies. Members of the first
stratum qualify as part of an “upstairs” caste, meaning they speak to
each other in iambic pentameter and have some connection to the royal
court. Here they’re portrayed as teens from a public high school
straight out of The Breakfast Club. Lysander (Nick Jackson) is a
waifish meterosexual guy dressed in a bad-’80s rendition of
Shakespearian garb — i.e., a ruffly blouse and shaggy mod
haircut, with a heart painted on his cheek. Hermia (Miyuki Bierlein) is
a cute, bitchy queen bee in ballet slippers and a purple tutu. Helena
(Marissa Keltie) is her homely counterpart: acid-washed jeans jacket,
French braid, fanny pack full of Hello Kitty paraphernalia. Helena’s
poor sartorial choices pale in comparison to her taste in men, which is
beyond pathetic. Throughout the play she has her sights on preppy
Demetrius (played to great comic effect by Seth Thygesen), who wears
gobs of hair gel and a big hulking cell phone that he treats like an
appendage. Thygesen is wonderfully dismissive, and comes off like an
old-fashioned cad.

Then you have the fairies, who occupy their own parallel universe in
the forest. In this case they belong to an underground punk scene.
Impact vet Sarah Coykendall renders the fairy queen Titania as a goth
dominatrix who lords over her husband Oberon (Tim Redmond), usually
with her two-girl retinue in tow. In the original play they squabble
over rights to a changeling that Oberon wants to use as some kind of
gun-for-hire; in this version, it’s obvious that both want to exploit
the poor kid as a boy toy. When Titania refuses to hand the boy over,
Oberon devises a revenge plot and enlists the help of right-hand-man
Puck (the infectious Pete Caslavka, who doubles as the play’s assistant
director), a wayward anarchist and dead ringer for Johnny Rotten. Even
if you don’t know how their devious plot will pan out, it’s easy to see
trouble in the making.

Finally, you have your “downstairs” caste, i.e., a scruffy group of
amateur thespians trying to put on their own production of the
classical romance, Pyramis and Thisbe. They are by far the
funniest element in this play, rendered as a group of stoners and
rejects, à la Dude, Where’s My Car? Nick Bottom, the
weaver who gets his major star turn as Pyramis, is played by ribald
Casi Maggio, who makes more than a couple jokes about gender-bending at
her own expense. Francis Flute (Brian Turner), who gets stuck playing
Thisby, looks like the type who would get his head flushed down a
toilet. Tom Snout (Perry Aliado), playing a stone wall, wears eyeliner
and lipstick and somewhat resembles the tom-girl in Revenge of the
Nerds
. Robin Starveling (Maria Giere) eats Funions throughout
rehearsal — elaborate setup for a joke toward the end of the
play. Collectively, these lowlifes are superfluous to the main
storyline (other than Bottom’s accidental seduction of Titania), and in
most productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream their subplot
seems like an afterthought. Here, however, they steal the show.

Directors adapt canonical material for contemporary audiences at
their own peril. But Hillman’s production is largely successful: It’s
clever, trendy, and funny without sacrificing too much of the source
material or underestimating the audience’s intelligence. As it turns
out, A Midsummer Night’s Dream lends itself to ’80s
counterculture the same way that Othello lends itself to
hip-hop: It’s full of bitchy cat fights, atrocious fashion choices,
polymorphous perversion, soppy, overly earnest romance, and fey,
androgynous men. The actors ham it up a bit and sprinkle in some
ad-libbed punch lines — some of which elicit more laughs than
Shakespeare’s original jokes. Hillman’s reverence for Shakespeare is as
obvious throughout as her nostalgia for Tears for Fears and Hello
Kitty, and she never quite devolves into satire.

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