For the last offering of its 1999-2000 season, Washington University's Ovations! Series presented the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis' celebrated production of Shakespeare's magical comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream. It will become, for many who have seen it, the touchstone Midsummer Night's Dream -- the one against which all previous and subsequent productions of the play will be tested for inventiveness, good sense and theatrical art. Although I expect to see productions of the play as good as the Guthrie's, I doubt I'll ever see one any better.
A Midsummer Night's Dream has three different kinds of folk living in it. The first is the upper classes: Duke Theseus, his bride, his henchmen and, to an extent, the four young lovers. Three marriages -- and marriage is the object of strict comedy -- come out of this group. The spirits of the woods and wilds are another group, and the marriage of the rulers of this kingdom is threatened by a quarrel. We all know from tragedy that if the head of the state is sick, so is the rest of the state. Reconciliation is effected, however, and all ends well. Finally come the common folk, the skilled craftsmen, who wish to put on a play -- a tragedy wherein the course of true love is entirely thwarted -- to present at the celebration of the duke's marriage.
Joe Dowling, the artistic director of the Guthrie and master of this production, began its success by figuring out ways -- highly theatrical ways -- to distinguish the three groups of folk and their worlds. The duke, his associates and the lovers live in ordinary time, in unremarkable surroundings -- until, of course, the young lovers go into the woods at night, stumble upon the comings and goings of the fairies and become the butts of some of their mischief. The world of the fairies is vividly, if darkly, colored and moves to a rock & roll beat. The clothing is extravagant. These folk often enter and exit the stage through a neon-lit, vulvalike gate. The workers -- a carpenter, a weaver, a tailor, a cabinetmaker and a tinker -- first gather in the living room of a small house on the wrong side of the tracks in Albert Lea, Minn. -- as the first words out of Peter Quince's mouth confirm. They, too, go into the woods at night, dressed in a variety of woodsy gear ranging from waders to a Boy Scout uniform, and they, too, get messed over. Dowling's audience always knows where they're at and whom they're watching. It is helpful that no one talks Brit (completely unnecessary -- ever! -- in American productions of Shakespeare), and that Kevin Kling, who talks Minnesota better than anyone else, sets the level of language for the proles. Every word in the production, spoken and sung, is comprehensible.
The players, as you might expect, were competent to the third power -- precise, easy in their roles and ready for the unexpected. At one point, when Shawn Hamilton, playing Oberon, stumbled and fell, Randy Reyes, playing Puck, broke character to ask, "Are you all right?" and cracked up a little but then moved back into character, as did Hamilton, so quickly that the interruption was charming and humane, rather than mood-breaking. Keith Thomas, who composed the music for and set the several songs of the play, had an elegant and sympathetic choreographer in Marcela Lorca, and the singing and dancing of the fairies (and of the proles as they finish their play) were exuberant and tactful.
The Guthrie Theater is supposedly the first among the nation's regional theaters, setting the standard for choice of plays, production values, acting, direction. Their Midsummer Night's Dream would seem to confirm this reputation, but it's a single production. The Rep (together with the Black Rep and other producing companies) has given us awfully good stuff. If St. Louis gave the Rep (and other performing-arts groups) the same support that the Twin Cities give the Guthrie, we could similarly expect the near-perfect execution that the Guthrie consistently fulfills. The St. Louis audience has more to learn from this phenomenal production than the Rep does.