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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