Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Catriona Leger, performed in Prescott, Ontario, Canada at the Saint Lawrence Shakespeare Festival. Reviewed July 23, 2012.
Canada is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the war of 1812. The Saint Lawrence, which separates the United States from Canada, was the site of battles, skirmishes and constant harassment on the part of both sides from the moment the Americans won their revolutionary war (1775-1783) and gained independence from Britain. The British colony of Upper Canada (presently Ontario) became the next American target, on the other side of that river. War was declared in 1812 and British troops aided by local Canadian forces, American Loyalists who fled to Canada, and First Nations peoples, fended off the Americans and established a lasting peace in the area.
There is still much historical controversy regarding that battle which ended in 1814, but we do know that the experience consolidated the existence of a Canadian consciousness in what were then Upper and Lower Canada (Quebec), and the beginning of what was to become an entire nation stretching across the continent.
For that reason, theatre festivals have become important events along that portion of the Saint Lawrence running from Morrisburg to Kingston, attracting spectators from both sides of the river as final proof that the hostilities are over, that we play in each other’s backyards especially in the summer when locals go for a spin on their yachts and motor boats. Part of the theatre public is the pleasure craft crowd in mini shorts and flashy tops, who drink their aperitifs on the deck of the yacht and do some interborder fraternization at the Prescott Marina before coming to the show. Those of us on land can only watch with envy, wondering at which point the USA becomes Canada in the middle of that river.
Catriona Leger’s version of A Midsummer night’s dream began at dusk. As the leaves around the waterfront amphitheatre near the Prescott Marina rustled ever so slightly, out popped a band of green creatures with shining eyes, plants growing out of their ears and ragged clothing. An outdoor performance allows for much freedom, and Mme Leger made it all work to her advantage. Flutes, drums and harps accompanied what resembled chanting, calling up the spirits of the forest who were hiding somewhere in John Doucet’s chaotic setting of hanging vines and shredded greenery. Thus began the first play of the Saint Lawrence Shakespeare Festival’s 10th season, and a delightful celebration it was.
Thanks to Mme Leger’s excellent work with the actors, her sense of rhythm and talent for creating a harmonious group dynamic, the performances retained a highly charged sense of youthful playfulness that engaged the audience for the whole two hours.
That amphitheatre with the thrust centre structure allowed actors to flitter around like a band of unearthly creatures. They emerged from the audience, they emerged from the sides of the stage, they went whizzing past behind the stage in full view of the audience, running back and forth along the marina docks, creating an outer world of Shakespearean creatures that seemed to flow over from the performance and come out of the water, or fall out of the sky in fits of energy. Leger harnessed all the space, transforming these effects into a total world invaded by various orders of beings invited in to play the central roles.
There were the Athenian nobles, led by the Duke of Athens (Quincy Armorer), working out his tangled web of emotional problems with his love Hippolyta (Alix Sideris); there was also Hermia (Lana Sugarman) who refused to obey her father (Shane Carty) and wed Demetrius (Brad Long). She and her true love, Lysander (Warren Bain) planned to flee into the forest to escape the laws of Athens.
However, the play then takes us into the parallel kingdom of fairies and magic creatures where King Oberon (Quincy Armorer) and Queen Tatiana (Alix Sideris) are supreme. Oberon engages Puck (played by a most delightfully mischievous Melissa Morris) to punish the haughty Tatiana and to help the mortal Athenian lovers by intervening in their world. Puck’s mistaken use of that magical flower creates confusion, even more chaos and allows director Leger to orchestrate some of the lustiest lovers’ battles one could imagine. Shrieking, snarling angry Hermia (Sugarman) defends her lost love and turns her furor on poor Helena (the excellent Kate Smith) who barely survives with her life in a most violent battle between the two Athenian women.
The physical energy that exploded here gave us the sense of a contemporary reality show where the contestants are fighting for their lives, completely contradicting costume designer Roberta Doylend’s delicately lacy dresses worn by the ladies. The costumes didn’t quite belong in such a rough and tumble forest environment but it all made for youthful energy and excitement. In this context, Lysander (Warren Bain) and Demetrius (Brad Long) spar and wrestle, using a male body language that was perfectly appropriate. It all became a physical performance by young actors who appeared to be engulfed in their own contemporary reality, which is what made it all seem so authentic.
Along with these quarrels and fairy feuds, Peter Quince the carpenter, with his merry band of local craftsmen (tinkers, tailors, joiners and weavers) are rehearsing a play, supposedly meant to entertain the Duke and his entourage for the upcoming Duke’s wedding. Their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, the craftsmen’s own rowdy version of Romeo and Juliet, is one of the funniest moments in the whole of Shakespeare’s repertoire, to my mind. It also includes a serious discussion on the nature of theatre but it is eventually broken up by Puck who transforms Bottom into an ass and sends his terrified friends shrieking into the forest.
The final performance of Pyramus and Thisbe where each actor becomes a character or a prop (wall, moon, and a lion) offers some of the most hilarious moments of the evening. Long lanky Adam Pierre – actually Flute the bellows-mender is a most graceful Thisbe, while Ron Klappholz as Bottom (playing Pyramus) becomes a carpenter in full delirium, driven by his compulsion to play all the roles at once, a feat he undertakes leaving us all breathless and slightly confused. Klappholz turns Bottom into a campy quintessential showman, the very spirit of theatre who is unable to stop performing. Some might call this overacting but given the context, Bottom’s tantrums of grief, his screaming and rolling round the stage as he pulls out the red handkerchiefs signifying blood and tosses them about like a self-destructing magician, produced one of the most noteworthy performances of the evening.
Alix Sideris as both Queen Hippolyta and Queen Tatiana gave her characters a slightly perverse dominatrix bent. Waking up in her bed of leaves and vines and spying the Asses head (she is doomed to love the first creature she sees upon awakening from her drug induced sleep), she pounces on him with a lusty sexuality that shone from her eyes and subjugated all the fairies around her. Sideris was excellent in spite of the fact that she seemed to be forcing her voice. Quincy Armour as both the Duke of Athens trying his best to please his lady love Hippolyta and Oberon trying to punish the proud Tatiana, was charming, gracious and regal, as he modulated his voice and his movements with great elegance.
It was all framed by a truly beautiful musical score that accompanied the actors, or that entertained us during the musical interludes which reinforced the atmosphere of a joyous party by the river. Musical director Melissa Morris’ was an important presence in this production, as an exceptionally elfin-like Puck and as a musician.
 Alvina Ruprecht est professeur émérite de l’Université Carleton et actuellement professeur adjoint au programme d’études théâtrales de l’Université d’Ottawa. Elle est critique de théâtre à la Radio nationale du Canada (services anglais et français), et membre co-fondateur de l’Association régionale des critiques de théâtre de la Caraïbe. À part ses recherches et ses nombreuses publications universitaires, elle contribue à différents sites de critique théâtrale dont www.madinin-art.net (Martinique) et www.theatredublog.unblog.fr (Paris), www.scenechanges.com (Toronto) et www.capitalcriticscircle.com (Ottawa).