Putting Women to Work in Midsummer

I’ve been blessed to know many, many extremely funny women in my life, so the lack of comedic opportunities for females has always felt like a slap in the face. From humorous interp scripts in high school to sitcoms, girls have only recently been allowed to be what I call “ugly-funny”: funny without regards to keeping with gender roles, funny in a weird-face-making, unladylike way (see: Tammy: A Coming of Age Story About a Girl Who Is Part T-Rex and Broad City). With this up-and-coming trend in comedy, we all know my first instinct is to slap it on a Shakespeare play. So with that in mind, let’s revisit A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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I mostly wrote this article because I deeply want to see Chelsea Peretti perform Nick Bottom. Photo by Jason Baldwin via Flickr.

I’ve already mentioned more than once that the dearth of female roles in Shakespeare keeps me up at night, and the solution is simply to forget about gender entirely when it comes to casting. That’s the principle I have in mind for Midsummer. In particular, I have it in mind for one group of characters that have the potential to bust audience’s guts even if nothing else has worked: the mechanicals. The mechanicals, in my own mind, are the “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” plotline; they have nothing to do with the lovers, and only run into the fairies’ quarrel when Nick Bottom happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and even then, it’s just Bottom that gets dragged into it. So, in many senses, they are their own self-contained comedy; after all, they’re putting on a play(-within-a-play). The mechanicals’ play then becomes a playground for comedic actors to flaunt their craft. How better to show off female comedy in a theatrically safe setting?

As we know by now, I also try to include some sort of plot justification for my casting choices. For Midsummer, this is particularly fun because the reason is this: nothing has to make sense. Midsummer is about a night where things go weird and sideways and wrong in a number of increasingly ridiculous ways (running away to the woods to being drugged by a fairy); even the notion of the mechanicals themselves putting on a play is meant to be ridiculous. Making them female is just whipped cream on top of the most lavish sundae ever made. Building on that: the mechanicals are meant to be unlikely candidates for the theatre. It then adds a nice jab of both satire and a bit of cruelty to make them women; are we saying that women are an unlikely fit for theatre? For comedy? Oops, did we just become self-aware? As is always my goal, we’ve then gone beyond just showing off the talent of the previously un-shown, and entered into a bit of commentary, should the audience want to dissect it that far.

As mentioned in my last Midsummer post, the play itself is deeply about love. But another of its recurrent themes is boldness: Hermia bold enough to stand up to her father, Oberon bold enough to demand the Indian boy, the mechanicals bold enough to put on a play. Women in comedy are by nature bold. Thus, it’s not a misstep to capitalize on them in Midsummer.

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Puck, Oberon, and Gay Representation: Creating Cohesion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

This week I wanted to take a break from the tragedy analysis. Of course, it feels more potent to make dramatic roles more accessible, but re-approaching comedic roles can do just as much if not more to normalize minority or ostracized groups of people. Non-Shakespeare case in point: Bridesmaids normalized women, The IT Crowd normalized black nerds (you go, Richard Ayoade!), so on so forth. I’ve got a few ideas about a couple of the comedies, but for our inaugural comedy analysis, I wanted to go with my favorite of the genre: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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Anita Louise as Titania in 1935. Photo via janwillemsen on flickr.

Now, I say it’s my favorite of the genre—it might be more accurate to say it’s my favorite of all Shakespeare’s works. The extraordinarily beautiful Anita Louise as Titania in 1935 is my phone wallpaper.I wrote about my experience with the play in an essay that got me into my university’s honors college. When I found out my sister would be portraying Hermia in a production in Chicago last summer, I cried a little. I have part of a shelf dedicated to “comfort movies” by my desk—on that shelf, a DVD of The Globe’s 2013 production of Midsummer. That production is the one I would like to discuss (and praise) today.

I have been teased throughout school for seeing LGBT subtext in anything I can get my hands on, and I grabbed Puck and Oberon’s relationship right away. Puck defers to Oberon, but at the same time, there’s not quite a sense of subservience in it; he’s playful with the king, and the way Oberon refers to certain shared moments in their past makes it seem like they were companions more than master and servant. For proof, see 2.1.519, the beginning of their conversation: Oberon refers to “my gentle Puck” (indicating intimacy!) and when he gives Puck directions to fetch a flower, Puck playfully answers that he’ll “put a girdle around the earth in forty minutes”. It certainly sounds more friendly than a king and his servant, and I latched onto that and refused to let go.

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The comfort movie corner with Dominic Dromgoole’s production of Midsummer.

Thankfully, director Dominic Dromgoole seemed to have the same notion, for at the risk of sounding indulgent and millennial, the 2013 Globe production is deeply, gloriously gay. John Light’s Oberon makes any excuse to touch Matthew Tennyson; Tennyson’s Puck gestures flamboyantly and has no issues being manhandled by Oberon. It helps that Tennyson looks like he’s about a hundred pounds soaking wet while Light is a bellowing man built like a mountain, and thus moments of tenderness are far more pronounced. But this isn’t just an indulgence for the LGBT community (though it would be fine if it was). Building a relationship between Puck and Oberon also rounds out the comedic atmosphere more.

Oberon is one of the least comedic characters of the play: he’s domineering and aggressive, and while he incites the plot that leads to some of the greatest comedy, he does it with dark motivations and without ever really being funny himself. John Light’s hypermasculine presence and brooding glare do nothing to help him in that regard. In a way, he then risks being the only non-funny character in a play meant to be funny. In Dromgoole’s production, it is his interactions with Puck that integrate him into the comedy, and therefore make the character make sense within the context of the play. (It just doesn’t do to have a stick in the mud in a Shakespearean comedy!) When Puck starts delivering some sass, Light’s Oberon wears an unamused expression that inspires a giggle or two. While spying on the lovers in the forest, Puck rides on Oberon’s shoulders, and they hide behind twigs to disguise themselves as a tree—truly one of the funniest parts of the play. (For fourteen minutes’ worth of these kinds of interaction, click here.) So Puck’s intimacy with Oberon is what brings Oberon from intimidating to personable (no small challenge), and therefore makes the whole ensemble a matching set of funny folks.

Could you play Oberon and Puck platonically? Absolutely—that’s been done for hundreds of years, and it’s been just dandy. But considering just how easy it would be to angle them a little less straight, and how that softens Oberon’s sharp edges, I can’t see any reason why you wouldn’t. Dromgoole pulled it off brilliantly, and I think that set a great standard. Midsummer is a comedy of follies, but like so many of the comedies, its final message is a hopeful outlook on love. If I can find one more place in the play to fit that in—by the Bard, I will.