Dream come true
In plays like A Midsummer Night's Dream, William Shakespeare forged the prototype of the smart romantic comedy, simultaneously erudite and farcical, clever and idiotic.
For five performances in the Southern Theatre, CAPA and CATCO are jointly presenting a touring production of Dream commissioned in 2004 by the British Council, conceived by the award-winning director Tim Supple and first staged in April 2006.
You may think you know Dream from any of the five local Actors' Theatre productions since 1982, the 1997 Arden Shakespeare Company version, the 1999 film with Kevin Kline as Bottom, or even the 1935 film with Jimmy Cagney and Mickey Rooney. But you have never seen a Dream like Supple's.
It incorporates dialogue in seven languages aside from English, embraces movement vocabularies from several South Asian traditions and puts onstage an entirely Sri Lankan and Indian cast.
In an e-mail interview, director Supple explained the origins of the production.
"I had wanted to direct the play for many years but never felt the time or situation to be quite right," he recalled. "As I traveled around India in 2005 and met and watched and worked with the remarkable range and variety of performers, I saw the Dream coming alive in the hands of these artists."
To Supple, the centuries-old richness of South Asian theater and dance fit perfectly with the demands of Shakespeare.
"Actors who could portray supernatural, mythic characters, aristocratic lovers, working men," he explained. "Actors who could act and dance and sing and climb, and animate fights and love and sensuality and power. Actors who could bring alive all aspects of Shakespeare - realistic, stylized, musical, physical, playful."
And just as in Shakespeare's art itself, opposites thrive side-by-side in India: "Ancient traditions exist alongside contemporary, urban alongside rural, folk alongside classical," Supple said.
Dream involves similar intersections: the royal wedding of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and the defeated Amazon Queen, Hippolyta; the wealthy Athenian children in a love quadrangle complicated by a father's stubbornness and the demands of ancient laws; a lovers' quarrel between Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies; and an earnest troupe of workers trying to put together their own version of the Pyramus and Thisbe tragedy for the wedding celebration.
Unlike many productions that downplay the cruelty and barbarity that underlie the comedy and set it in motion, this Dream treats each of these worlds with respect and gravity.
"If you take each aspect of the story seriously," Supple explained, "then the ultimate experience will be deeper and more lasting. Why should we care about stories that we do not have to take seriously? The truth of the Dream lies in the rich tapestry of human experience it portrays. This is lost or reduced if the nature of Hermia's predicament or the savagery of the lovers in the forest is diminished.
"We handle both with directness, frankness, head on. We try to show it how it is - rage, despair, ferocity and lust - line by line, moment by moment."
Among the more unusual aspects of this production is its use of seven South Asian languages in addition to English.
As Supple noted, the non-English dialogue translates Shakespeare directly. "So if we stay true to the meaning and intention of the original, then an audience will receive this meaning and follow in a different way than they do when they understand every word. Having said that, who understands every word of Shakespeare? There's always a guessing game, a puzzle, a need for acute listening and thought.
"A journey to a strange place where we must use our minds and imaginations is part of the essence of theater," he continued. "An audience has nothing to fear unless they fear working a bit. We make no apology for this. The actors are vivid and expressive and true, and their ability to commune with audiences creates a kind of magic."
Midsummer in mid-autumn? Only through the magic of theater.
What: "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
When: Nov. 19-23
Where: Southern Theatre, Downtown