The Cincinnati Shakespeare Company is famous at Ball State for their small casts and minimal set designs: in fact, there were only six performers for a play that consists of eighteen characters, and, instead of a set, several freestanding red curtains served as the backdrop, draped in a sign stating Athens or covered in foliage based on the setting of the scene. And though their troupe be little, the performances are fierce.
Each actor, in order to compensate for the gap in performers to number of characters, took on multiple roles. This was nothing short of remarkable to watch. As each actor seamlessly blended from persona to persona, never mixing up their lines and enduring quick-changes onstage, it was hard to pick a standout performance. In fact, the chemistry this ensemble shares elevates each actor to the same high level of regard.
When analyzing a performance of Shakespeare, it is difficult to critique the plot - instead of attempting to discuss the positive and negative aspects of an iconic and beloved play, it is more productive to investigate what the performers do with the plot to make it unique or relevant to their audience. The Cincinnati Shakespeare Company did not disappoint in their rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Practically the only aspect of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that remained true to traditional performances was the dialogue, which was also updated time-to-time with modern references. Most of these opportunities were left for the character of Puck, the notorious fairy whose penchant for mischief and comedy seems particularly well-suited to this experimentation.
Another experiment primarily reserved for Puck and the fairies in this presentation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the incorporation of music, song, and dance. While many of the music cues illuminated what was going on in the play effectively (such as the fairies controlling the characters with their magic) and the dances were well choreographed, the songs seemed out of place at times. Although Shakespeare is easy to experiment with musically due to its rhythmic prose, the hip-hop inspired renditions of spells and magic felt clunky and at times cliche, an obvious reference to the Hamilton-craze. I typically would not fault a play for Hamilton influences, but these portions of the play were the least impressive for me personally.
Even though the songs did tend to fall flat, the technical aspects did not. Watching the play, it quickly became apparent that the actors were not only performing, but working as their own crew. This rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is typically a part of Cincinnati’s Shakespeare in the Park series, meaning it is performed outdoors, in natural light, just like it would have been in Shakespeare’s day. Therefore, the actors do not have a crew to operate the lights, change the set, or initiate music cues. One actor, at all times, is behind the curtain, ensuring that nothing misses its mark.
The actors truly shined during the drama between Hermia, Demetrius, Lysander, and poor, misguided Helena. Again, the chemistry these actors have with each other is palpable. Their comfort onstage, interpretation of the lines, dedication to their “fight” scenes, and personal gesticulations while delivering their lines heighten the performances and make them a joy to watch. Particularly amazing was watching Aiden Sim’s sweethearted Hermia become enraged at Lysander’s sudden love for Helena - her anger, body language, and movement onstage are beautifully juxtaposed, making her betrayal, confusion, and outrage seem particularly jarring and effective.
The costuming, minimalistic in design, but very effective, was most prominently displayed in the simple but comical donkey mask for Nick Bottom. Accompanied by a hearty “hee-haw!,” Nick’s character became the perfect ass for Titania’s love. The costumes also became a crucial identifier for each character. While the actors only had mere seconds to change onstage, each costume was still distinct and complex enough to allow the audience to differentiate Lysander from Francis Flute.
Overall, the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was as compelling to watch as it was fun. They were not afraid to take risks, and while some of them did not pay off as well as others, they were appreciated nonetheless. Having seen Midsummer performed at Shakespeare’s Globe in London just this last summer, I can confidently say that the high expectations set by that performance were met last night in Pruis. The remarkable differences between each performance kept the material fresh, enjoyable, and exciting, and sitting in a comfortable chair in Pruis instead of standing as a Groundling after a day of exploring London may have helped too.
Kyle Brumley - Demetrius, Nick Bottom
Brandon Joseph Burton - Oberon, Theseus, Snug
William Cary Davenport - Puck, Egeus
Vanessa Sawson - Titania, Helena, Hippolyta, Tom Snout
Aiden Sims - Hermia, Peter Quince, Robin Starvelling, Fairy
Crystian Wiltshire - Lysander, Francis Flute, Fairy
Philostrate, Additional fairies