Whenever I teach a comedy in my Shakespeare class, I remind my students that the early modern genre “comedy” doesn’t quite mean what it means now. Shakespearean comedies have a light-hearted tone and a happy ending involving the marriage of two or four or six or eight persons who were either trying to pair off the entire time or who conveniently got paired off right at the end for the sake of symmetry. “Don’t expect these to necessarily be laugh-out-loud funny,” I warn my students. That’s not to say Shakespeare doesn’t do slapstick: there’s little funnier in the English language than Malvolio traipsing around in yellow stockings and cross garters (doesn’t matter if you don’t know what that is, it’s still funny) and smiling like a maniac. But remember: The Merchant of Venice is technically a comedy, and it’s also a huge bummer.
You never really expect LOLs with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, whose fanciful plot inspires more awwww’s than haha’s, with the Mechanicals offering periodic comedic relief. But Joe Dowling and David Bolger had a couple of different ideas that were game changers for Midsummer: first, don’t sacrifice the slapstick Mechanicals for the sake of brevity and plot. Second, don’t assume the Mechanicals are the only characters who can be funny.
And it paid off spectacularly. Not only is this one of the longer versions of Midsummer you’ll see because the preparation and performance of the hilarious Peter Quince (Jay Albright) and his company saw almost equal time on stage as the Athenians and the Fairies, it’s also a performance that works the comedy muscles of every single character on stage. The four lovers’ potion-inspired quandary spills itself over the stage in the round, with blocking and choreography so varied and intense you forget there is no set on stage with them. Helena and Demetrius (Emily Kitchens and Casey Hoekstra) outshone Hermia and Lysander (Eleonore Dendy and Zach Keenan) by a long shot, Emily Kitchens proving to be one of the standout performances of the play with her awkward hilarity (I may be biased here; my best friend refers to me as a “Helena” because I too am tall and awkward.)
The troupe of fairies offered spectators a healthy dose of six packs and climbing around on railings. At one point Puck (the astounding Tyler Michaels, winner of the Emerging Artist award at the 2014 Ivey Awards) startled one poor audience member so much when he climbed up the railing next to her that she cried out loud. I’d probably yell “Oh!” too if a nimble breath of a boy with three mohawks and no clothes popped up next to me out of nowhere. Not a moment of the play’s time in fairyland wasn’t beautifully choreographed; be it the song and dance numbers or just Oberon (Nicholas Carrière) flicking Puck in the ear, a complex set wasn’t missed on stage in the least thanks to the superbly talented fairies, who at times just acted as set pieces themselves. Particular call-out due to Darius Barnes as Moth, who was sharp and masterful in his hilarity.
Where the performance could potentially suffer is where any performance of Midsummer may suffer: length. Which is why the end is usually lopped off in favor of a clean happy ending. But Dowling and Bolger chose to give the Mechanicals, having practiced as hard as they did to perform their play for the Duke and his Queen, their due time on stage. And as it turns out, this oft-cut tail end of the play ended up being far and away the funniest of the whole performance. Andrew Weems’ Nick Bottom was an outlandish goofball with comedic timing so precise that he could literally commit suicide for almost ten straight minutes and have the audience uproariously laughing precisely on cue. Was it a necessary, oh, forty or so minutes after which the “plot” (which I think is a bit of a stretch for a play in a play whose denouement is just Oberon going “wooops, my bad, nevermind takesies backsies!”) had already been wrapped up? Nah, of course not. Super not necessary. But it was a screaming delight, and a real joy to finally see a performance that doesn’t relegate the Mechanicals off to the side, and instead asks the Athenians to sit on their butts for a while and watch what these actors can do. The actors were, of course, in no small part aided by the brilliant mechanics with which the magic of a night spent with fairies came to life: wirework, an enormous animated backdrop screen, and intricately technical spells conjured with light and sound.
Joe Dowling clearly intended to pull out all the stops in his final season as Artistic Director at the Guthrie, revisiting an old favorite of his and doing so with a modern flair that made it one of the funniest performances I’ve seen on stage. And I’d be remiss to end this review without at least a cursory mention of Oberon’s bitchin’ codpiece.