Dream Debased

What was supposed to be mystical -- Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream -- is instead mystifying.

Jun 5, 2002 at 4:00 am
The Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis opened its second season with a prosaic production of The Emperor's New Clothes.

Oops. Check that. I meant to say, A Midsummer Night's Dream. It only felt like The Emperor's New Clothes, with everyone in the audience respectfully pretending to be at rapt attention, when as often as not they didn't have a clue as to what was being said onstage.

A Midsummer Night's Dream may be the most sublimely incomprehensible masterpiece ever written. Three of its five acts are not conventional comedy at all. Rather, they are precisely as the author described, "a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was." You cannot diagram a dream. Which is why all the pre-theater green shows and newspaper flowcharts that try to unravel this complicated story in advance are futile. You don't dissect this play. Instead, you allow it to roll over you, and then hope that some of its mystical aura will rub off.

Beyond mysticism, what other appeal does the Dream have? In contrast to the Bard's other comedies, it offers no substantive character -- no Shylock, Prospero or Malvolio -- to engage our minds. Nor is there a Beatrice or Benedick to capture our hearts. Even the genteel Shakespeare scholar, the poet Mark Van Doren, who doted on this play's Byzantine images, conceded that its four lovers are "non-entities." So why was A Midsummer Night's Dream, with its complex exchanges between Oberon and Titania, chosen as the Shakespeare Festival's sophomore offering? A sophomoric answer might be: because some of the plot is set in the woods, and Forest Park has trees galore. But of course, the Dream doesn't require trees. It requires artifice, and it receives precious little in this austere, earthbound rendering.

Even though the Dream was ill chosen (it is sheer arrogance to subject audiences to such dense poetry the second time out of the gate), had the production taken flight, there might have been some recompense. But this is a drab Dream. Visually, it cannot compare to the stunning Twelfth Night that Washington University staged in February (with the same gifted scenic designer -- go figure). These hapless actors have been left to flounder through this miasma of confusion, for their director (Eleanor Holdridge) seems more intent on finding new opportunities for pratfalls than on clarifying the text. God forbid we should understand what an actor is saying if he can fall over instead.

How can a production go so awry from the play's intent? For starters, take a look at the crowds. One senses that the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis craves a high body count. If they have to pander their production to infants, babies, dogs, it's all the same. But the Bard was not a baby-sitter, nor was he writing children's theater. It serves nothing -- especially not the play -- to dress the rustics like the Village People, and then portray the comedy's most accessible character, Bottom, as if he were Jim Varney in Ernest Saves the Elves. But here's the real danger: If well-intentioned parents force their children to sit through this kind of interminable production, it might well sour those kids on Shakespeare forever.

As for the adults, well, if once a year good-natured St. Louisans are willing to litter Forest Park in 90-degree heat, we at least deserve to see a classic we have a fair chance of understanding, and we deserve -- in fact, we should demand -- to see it mounted brilliantly. I know it's heresy to raise a voice against St. Louis' newest sacred cow, but if this fledgling festival aspires to stage an annual production of stature (which it has yet to do), it had better get its act together really fast. If the Shakespeare Festival continues to hover at its current bland level, the sacred cow will quickly be revealed as a white elephant, one without any clothes.