Review: Queer "Midsummer Night's Dream" Offers a Most Rare Vision

 A Midsummer Night's Dream

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Brandon Walker and Erin Cronican

Presented by The Seeing Place Theater via Zoom

August 29-30, 2020 [UPDATE: extended on YouTube through 9/5; get streaming tickets here.]

L to R: Puck, Cobweb, First Fairy, Peaseblossom, Titania, Oberon. Courtesy The Seeing Place Theater
In her 2010 book The Promise of Happiness (Duke University Press), Sara Ahmed notes that "heterosexual happiness is overrepresented in public culture," so much so that it becomes "difficult to separate out narrative as such from the reproduction of happy heterosexuality" (p. 90). Queer reimaginings of canonical texts, such as The Seeing Place Theater's virtual reading of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, thus perform a vital role in constructing a robust counterdiscourse within our heteronormative culture. And in an echo of Shakespeare’s interplay between the real and the fantastic worlds in the play, The Seeing Place's entertaining and inventive Dream also donated all proceeds to benefit The Ali Forney Center, an organization that assists LGBTQIA+ youth who are experiencing homelessness.

In Shakespeare's comedy, Athenians Hermia (Ellinor DiLorenzo) and Lysander (Weronika Helena Wozniak) are in love, but Hermia's father, Egeus (Jon L. Peacock), has arranged for her to marry Demetrius (William Ketter) and appeals to Theseus (Brandon Walker), who is soon to marry Hippolyta (Laura Clare Browne), to help him to enforce his wishes (and uphold the patriarchal order from which they both derive authority). Hermia's friend Helena (Erin Cronican) meanwhile, remains in love with Demetrius, who left her for the arranged marriage. Hermia and Lysander flee to the forest, followed by Helena and Demetrius, where they encounter Puck (Jon L. Peacock)—one of the faeries ruled by Oberon (Brandon Walker) and Titania (Laura Clare Browne), who are having some relationship problems of their own—and some magical love juice. Puck also works some transformative magic on Bottom (Dan Mack), one of a group of artisan-class amateur actors often referred to as the Mechanicals. As one might expect from all of this, there are complications.
L to R: Theseus, Lysander, Hippolyta, Egeus, Demetrius, Hermia. Courtesy The Seeing Place Theater
The Seeing Place's reading alters the genders of several of the Mechanicals, with Peter Quince becoming Mistress Quince (Erin Cronican), for example. Further, Oberon and Puck are presented as non-binary and, most significantly, Lysander as a woman, which adds a dimension to Egeus's preference of Demetrius over Lysander, suggesting a disinclination that, as the reading re-phrases it, "Jill shall have her Jill."

The reading uses modern dress—Puck sports a particularly great outfit with a studded choker—and a subtle, minimalist score by Randi Driscoll. The emphasis on a play's language inherent to a reading, and even more so a virtual reading, works well with a text from a time when playgoers were often referred to as auditors, and the dialogue provides enough description that modern editors look to it for implied stage directions. But The Seeing Place also makes canny use of the specific presentational possibilities of Zoom. Characters are helpfully identified in the upper corner of the screen while they speak, for instance, and the actors play against backgrounds ranging from a pub to what we'll call a fantasy forest to Grecian ruins. At one point, when Hermia is hiding, her screen is cleverly left black. 
Lto R: Bottom, Quince, Snug, Flute, Snout, Starveling. Courtesy The Seeing Place Theater
The reading also makes very creative, and sometimes very funny, use of filters, particularly for the faeries and the Mechanicals. Oberon gains a hint of Raiden from Mortal Kombat, for example, while Moonshine in the Mechanicals' version of Pyramus and Thisbe brings to mind The Mighty Boosh's surrealist moon, and Mack takes some humorous advantage of the distorting properties of a bearded and helmeted filter used on Bottom-as-Pyramus. Midsummer probably edges out Much Ado About Nothing for the Shakespeare play with the most "ass" jokes, and Mack also deserves kudos for managing to be expressive underneath a digital donkey's head.

The Seeing Place employs some suggestive doubling of roles (Theseus/Oberon, Hippolyta/Titania, Egeus/Puck), and interestingly plays the moment when Titania realizes what Oberon has done to her regarding Bottom as a shared joke between a close couple. Walker and Browne make effective use of space during their earlier debate of the "changeling" boy, leaning into their computers' cameras and playing off of their fixed perspective. Walker also creates some memorable moments in Oberon's gloating reaction to getting the changeling boy and the comedy of Theseus choosing the entertainment for his nuptial celebrations and dancing to the Mechanicals' bergamask afterwards. Cronican brings a real (and funny) humanity to Quince both as a put-upon stage manager and then as a Prologue who reacts in frustration to her mistakes as she makes them but then gets increasingly gets carried away by and carries off the latter portion of her introduction of Pyramus and Thisbe. (Walker's Oberon too becomes a kind of exasperated stage manager with Puck after it becomes clear that Puck made some mistakes with their magic.) DiLorenzo and Cronican suffuse the conflict between Hermia and Helena with energy and emotion, and DiLorenzo crafts a distinctive Snout. Mack as Bottom does some very good bad verse recitation, and Ketter fashions a sometimes haughty Demetrius. Thesus's hound (uncredited) also turns in a fine performance.
Pyramus and Moonshine. Courtesy The Seeing Place Theater
The reading was followed by a Q&A with the cast, who answered questions about the choice for a queer take on Shakespeare (part of this answer involved the insightful observation that Hermia and Lysander essentially become homeless because of their romantic choice), the rehearsal process and technical approaches, and seeing Shakespeare through an LGBTQIA+ lens. Cronican also pointed out that the next step is to take action, and towards that end, The Seeing Place will be holding a panel discussion on LGBTQIA+ homelessness in partnership with the Ali Forney Center on Wednesday, September 2, at 6pm EST. The panel is free, and you can RSVP using the link provided in the program.

At the same time that The Seeing Place's reading of A Midsummer Night's Dream draws attention to the need for action on serious, life-and-death issues, it is characterized throughout by its sense of fun, from the aforementioned playful use of filters to hearing boundary-blurring snatches of laughter from the "onstage" audience during the Mechanicals' performance. Like "Bottom's Dream," The Seeing Place provides a fresh and fantastical perspective on an established experience—even if everyone does still get married in the end.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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