Miscellany News: ‘Midsummer’ reimagines universal themes

Originally published in The Miscellany News on April 23, 2014. 

When most people think of Shakespeare’s play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” they associate it with lush garden settings that mirror the resplendent feeling of being in love. The Shakespearean classic has a long performance history—from inside high school English classrooms to large productions in the Folger Shakespeare Theater—but Vassar’s upcoming rendering of the show will be entirely unprecedented. “What makes this particular production unique in that regard is the way it drains that stereotype [of the garden setting] away,” wrote director Sam Rebelein ’16 in an emailed statement.

Rebelein’s rendition spotlights the complexities of love propounded by the play: disappointment, lust, confusion and the absurdity of puppy love. His version will take place in Athens, Oklahoma, circa 1930—The Dust Bowl, instead of Athens, Greece—and will feature interludes from circus troupe the Barefoot Monkeys. “Our version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is set during the Dust Bowl where the fairies are traveling circus people and the lovers and mechanicals are citizens of “Athens,” Oklahoma. “We have really cool performances by the Barefoot Monkeys and an amazing eight year-old as one of the fairies,” said Asia Atlas ’17, who plays both Snug and Cobweb in the play.

The change of setting will encourage a more personal connection and heightened understanding of the play, stripping away any preconceived notions of the audience. This version will stress the play’s universal themes, while underscoring a sense of urgency integral to the work. “The process of ‘placing’ these plays in more contemporary contexts, like the Dust Bowl, is exciting, and I love finding those threads of emotional truth surrounding the processing of love and loss that transcend historical specificity,” wrote Julianne Johnson ’16, who will be playing Helena.

The addition of The Barefoot Monkeys greatly adds to the show’s setting. “We are really lucky to have The Barefoot Monkeys as additional carnies, which really enhances the ‘Dust Bowl’ and magical feel of the show,” stated Sybil Engelby ’16, the show’s lighting manager and production assistant.

Shakespeare’s concept of love in the play is not entirely magnanimous, and so Rebelein’s setting reflects the complicated nature of it in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “This [type of setting] allows us to explore a lot of the underlying themes of the play, like how ridiculous and fickle love can be because the backdrop doesn’t suggest a full, wondrous relationship,” wrote Rebelein. “If we put [Hermia and Lysander] in a dying, dusty forest filled with old, gnarled, broken trees, we begin to see how their relationship is not quite as well-founded as we might think.”

The set design tries to make the play as accessible to the audience as possible, since Shakespeare’s language can read as antiquated and difficult to parse. “By using more recent and recognizable cultural iconography in the design of the set, costumes, and lights, it transports the still relevant and moving themes of the play into a setting that the audience can understand more readily,” wrote Noah Mintz ’16, who plays Egeus.

Vassar’s own Barefoot Monkeys will take the place of Shakespeare’s fairies.

The group’s performance adds a dimension to the play often lost in more traditional adaptations. Their costumes, punctuated by bright, lush colors, animal print, vests and mismatched designs, will contribute to the carnivalesque atmosphere of the play. “[The Barefoot Monkeys’] presence gives the show a lighter, more circus-like feeling so that it doesn’t get bogged down in the emotional turmoil of the lovers, but continually shapes the world of the play to be a place of fantasy and trickery and light-hearted deception,” wrote Johnson.

“We’ve also tried to avoid the more traditional Monkey approach of strict choreography. A lot of the acts don’t use the typical sets of moves that Monkeys use in their shows, and I think it really comes through in the numbers. There’s something different about this performance, not just because we only have four performers as opposed to our typical twenty-fifty, but because we’re exploring dynamic movement as our inspiration, rather than a set of tricks,” wrote Lauren Huang ’15, who will be playing a Carnie.

Although Rebelein takes many artistic liberties with his rendition of the play, the cast and crew of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” remain faithful to the comedic element of the play. “I often struggle to maintain composure and hold back laughter during rehearsals,” wrote Stage Manager Lee Ann Meeks ’17. “Sam’s vision of ‘Midsummer’ really brings out all the comic moments, big and small,” wrote Max Fine ‘17, who will be playing Oberon and Theseus.

Rebelein hopes that his interpretation—that simultaneously highlights the work’s dreary and fantastical elements—will encourage the audience to think more deeply about the many different and complicated manifestations of love. “By pumping new life into the play with a change of setting and a re-interpretation of some of the now taken-for-granted parts of the play, I want the audience to think more deeply about what they mean when they say, ‘I love X,’” wrote Rebelein.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will be performed at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 25th and Saturday the 26th at the Susan Stein Shiva Theater.


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