It was difficult not to feel butterflies on Thursday as cast members of A Midsummer Night’s Dream began to encircle a thrust stage underneath the canopy a stone’s throw from the new Tom Patterson Theatre in Stratford.
An opening afternoon audience of 100, split up and physically distanced on two sides of the stage, gave a hearty applause, and the players responded with gentle smiles, waves and nods, recognizing the anticipation.
Robin “Puck” Goodfellow (Trish Lindström), the play’s infamous magical sprite, in this case sporting a mop of blazing orange hair, broke the fourth wall in a short introduction to director Peter Pasyk’s take on one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated comedies.
“Are you here for the show? It’s been a long time.”
It certainly has.
The launch of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this week marked the return of Shakespeare to Stratford for the first time since 2019, and it’s difficult to imagine a better choice for the occasion.
Set in Athens, A Midsummer Night’s Dream revels in the messy side of love through a series of subplots that unfold in the days leading up to the royal wedding of Theseus (Craig Lauzon) and Hippolyta (Bahareh Yaraghi).
Two lovers, Hermia (Eva Foote) and Lysander (Micah Woods), decide to run away into a nearby forest to escape Egeus (Lindström), Hermia’s disapproving father. They are followed by Hermia’s best friend, Helena (Amaka Umeh), and the person she loves, Demetrius (Jonathan Mason), except he also loves Hermia and happens to have Egeus’s blessing.
While in the forest, the lovers unknowingly stumble into a squabble between Oberon and Titania (also played by Lauzon and Yaraghi), the king and queen of the fairies.
In a rage, Oberon has Puck track down a magical flower that can be used to convince someone to fall in love with the next person they see. Although Oberon’s plan is to use this trick to embarrass Titania, it is also used mischievously to confuse the Greek lovers and Nick Bottom (Andre Sills), a weaver in the forest with five others rehearsing a play they’re meant to perform at the upcoming wedding.
One of Shakespeare’s funniest plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also one of his most lyrical, and the show’s eight-member ensemble, nearly all of whom take on multiple roles, beautifully delivered a largely traditional script.
It’s worth noting, however, that Pasyk’s vision is far from conservative, especially from an aesthetic point of view. The director – meant to helm a production of Hamlet before the Stratford Festival’s 2020 playbill was cancelled – and costume designer Lorenzo Savoini, in particular, take plenty of risks.
Ancient Greek costumes are nowhere to be seen. While they’re in the forest, the lovers all wear white pajamas and carry their belongings in backpacks. Puck and Titania, meanwhile, borrow heavily from English punk rock fashion from the 70s and 80s. Along with bright orange hair, Puck wears Doc Marten-style boots and baggy black pants with the anarchists’ circled A.
The players, all tradespeople in Shakespeare’s script, wear modern clothes representative of those types of workers. The outfits are cleverly modified when they’re performing the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, the famous play within a play.
The unconventional theatre space under the Tom Patterson canopy likely played a role in most of the production’s creative directions. Despite its limitations, set designer Patrick Lavender rose to the challenge with a few tricks that kept Thursday’s audience on its toes, and Reza Jacobs’ sound design amplified the tone set by the wardrobe choices, both of which work overtime due to minimal scenery.
Not all of those decisions will appease purists, but the cast shows off great chemistry, especially as they’re asked to quickly flip between characters and, at a few points, add to the atmosphere by playing instruments kept near the stage.
Regardless of preferences, one thing is for certain – it’s great to see Shakespeare back in Stratford.