Today, I semi-contemplate the work of William Shakespeare. If we could peep in on his writing space, that would be pretty great, wouldn’t it? Instead, I come to these thoughts after seeing South Coast Repertory’s production “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” last week.
I had no intention of seeing this production. For a long while I’ve felt that the curtain had come down on my relationship with Shakespeare—in the best of ways. I’ve seen at least one production of every Shakespeare play (except “King John”). I’ve performed in them from middle school through college, and then turned back around and directed a middle school production myself (“Macbeth”). I have adoringly watched the 17 year-old version of my brother play Duke Orsino. I have watched Colm Feore play virtually every title role at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival with equal adoration. I have sat with Sir Ian McKellen and talked with him about putting the character Richard III on film. I have seen the high concept and low concept; the Elizabethan concept and the futuristic concept; the holy-cow-you-have-way–too–much-concept and the holy-cow-you-have absolutely–zero concept. And finally, after all those years, I was elevated to Shakespeare-induced nirvana with the Bill Rauch-directed “Two Gentleman of Verona” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It was like drinking a Guinness straight from the factory in Dublin. It was so amazingly, defyingly fantastic that I felt like I never had to see another production of anything Shakespeare ever, ever again.
To be clear, I’m not a Shakespeare snob, and I do not approach his oeuvre with much academic energy. The closest I’ve come to Harold Bloom is “Shakespeare in Love.” But I’ve experienced my share of Shakespeare.
So when my friend, the estimable Kimberly Colburn (South Coast’s Assistant Literary Manager), urged me to check out their production of “Midsummer,” my first thought—despite that high-esteem I hold for her—was something akin to “Uhhhhhh. . .”
“See it,” she said.
She said it that simply, the honesty of someone not desperate to sell a product, confident that the product speaks well for itself, thank you very much.
And she was right (of course). It was a funny, beautiful and innovative production, chock full of acting, directing and design brimming with comfortable, confident and happy abilities. But that alone wasn’t enough to make me overcome my Shakespeare fatigue.
Here’s what was: I noticed, early on in the performance, a particular energy emanating from the first few rows of the audience, house right. A nervous energy, but also the energy of a group of people really, really hoping to have a great time. And, wonderfully, they were sold on this “Midsummer” pretty much as soon as the lovers entered the woods.
The compact was forever sealed in Act V when, in the play within the play, Bottom (as brilliantly performed by Patrick Kerr) recited the line “O night with hue so black!”—emphasis on the word “black”—directly spoken to Demetrius, played by Tobie Windham, who until that moment only just happened to be African American. But his response to that direct recitation is one I can only describe as an “Oh-he-did-not-just-say-that-to-my-face” face—a face he made while sitting downstage left, in front of that particularly energetic quadrant of house-right audience. Tobie’s facial reaction wrecked them. They didn’t just laugh—their bodies wracked. I first saw this physical response out of the corner of my eye and I honestly, honestly thought some dangerous low-flying beast (a bat, perhaps?) had buzzed overhead. It was that physical a response. Awesome. And not one Shakespeare would have ever “intended.” Even more awesome.
After the performance, Kimberly led an audience talkback session with the actors. She asked if it was anyone’s first time seeing a production of “Midsummer.” I wasn’t surprised to learn that it was the first such production for most of that house-right audience. For some of them, it was their first Shakespeare production ever.
These are not my thoughts on why everyone should have the opportunity to see Shakespeare, or see live theater (though of course!). Nor are they my thoughts on the societal value of providing these experiences (though of course!). These thoughts are far more selfish. They are thoughts that serve as my reminder that just when I think I’m “over” something that I know to be wonderful, all I need to do is experience that very same wonderful with new, open and generous eyes. And if they can’t be mine, I can live vicariously through eagerly receptive people living and experiencing all around me.
I’m hardly a cynic, but even I can use the reminder every once in awhile: Everything old can be new again.