A dream of a `Dream': Shakespeare as fierce social commentary
A dazzling production -- to the eye and to the mind -- has joined the repertoire of the Guthrie Theater here, and it's already proving a box office hit at this renowned repertory playhouse. The show is ``A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' staged by Liviu Ciulei, who has been the Guthrie's artistic director since 1980 but is leaving after this season. This is his last work for the Guthrie -- a parting gift that certainly supports the Romanian's brilliant reputation as a creatively disruptive force in world theater. His production's impact lingers long after its stunning visual effects are over, reminding you of how stirring -- how full of unexpected and sometimes perverse meaning -- a classic pla y can become in the hands of an audaciously gifted director.Skip to next paragraph
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Ostensibly, Shakespeare's comedy -- set vaguely in ancient Greece -- deals with a cat's cradle of emotional crosscurrents among lovers and the threat these feelings pose to the social equilibrium. A lot of the play takes place in the kingdom of the fairies -- the woods -- where the dream world of the title takes over.
In Athens, Hermia's father has chosen Demetrius as her husband. The trouble is, she loves Lysander, whom her father accuses of ``corrupting'' her imagination. Demetrius, in turn, loves Hermia, while it is Helena who loves him. The ``seething brains'' of lovers, according to Theseus, Duke of Athens, cause turmoil and upset the patriarchal order, and he commands Hermia to submit to her father's wishes.
But in the opening scene just before this confrontation, Ciulei has accomplished an electrifying transformation of the play's ``traditional'' atmosphere. The Guthrie's thrust stage and bare floor are covered with glaring red plastic. Into this harsh, shimmering world steps Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, who has been captured by Theseus and brought back as his bride.
Played here with a dignified outrage by the black actress Lorraine Toussaint, Hippolyta stands silently as the next startling bit of stage business takes place: Theseus' tailors -- a hostile swarm -- rush on stage, strip off Hippolyta's dark guerrilla-style clothes, and wrap her in white swaths that make a striking contrast against the red set, with Hippolyta's black face proudly punctuating the other hues.
The mix of colors, the ritual show of domineering force, the symbolic re-dressing -- such effects almost instantly establish the world of fierce social commentary which Ciulei wishes to open up. His staging lets audiences trace all kinds of parallels -- the ``racial'' color coding of black and white, the kidnapping of slaves, urban- guerrilla politics, and undoubtedly others.
But the main theme being probed in this staging -- one that Ciulei himself confirmed when I spoke with him later -- is what he calls ``gender relations.'' The staging turns Shakespeare's evocative scenes into a war between the sexes in which male dominance is constantly challenged. From the opening seconds, the show is replete with insistent messages from the director that challenge feminine submission to the patriarchal order. Line after line is read with a special twist, a mocking tone, a coy look, a double take -- all broad devices to make the audience think hard about what the characters are saying and to challenge the social premises behind the lines.
The words themselves are left intact, of course, but a subversive subtext of stage business and special readings runs parallel to the familiar dialogue. Sometimes the staging winks at the audience and says, ``Isn't this line outrageous.'' Sometimes the dark possibilities behind a line are underscored with a scream or a tragic look.