I knew I was in trouble as soon as I read the "Director's Note." Directors and academics are always claiming to have found The Best Approach to interpreting and/or performing Shakespeare, but it takes a special kind of pomposity to claim, as director Ike Schambelan does in his notes for the Theater by the Blind production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, that "this is a deeply revolutionary production, so entertaining and clear that you never want to see another Shakespeare that doesn't let him speak in his own form, his own voice."
Leaving the theatre two hours later, the boyfriend said to me, "He was right about one thing -- I never want to see another production of Shakespeare."
If it weren't for the claims made in that program note, and in an equally off-putting preshow announcement by TBTB co-artistic director Schambelan, I would feel a little bit bad reporting on the awfulness of this production. But I don't like being told that what I am about to see will be brilliant, even when it turns out to be true, and when it turns out to be anything but true, I'm not inclined to be charitable.
Schambelan's "revolutionary" approach involves double-casting -- hardly a new idea, especially when it comes to Midsummer, but Schambelan claims that his production has been cast (with a total of 6 actors) exactly as Shakespeare intended, a claim that is hard to credit once you've sat through the final scene, which here is much longer and much less funny than it ought to be, because the Athenians keep dashing offstage and coming back on as Mechanicals, and then dashing back offstage and coming back on again as Athenians. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
In his preshow announcement, Schambelan informed us that since we were seeing a preview, we should expect things to go wrong. He added that, because of his revolutionary, just-as-Shakespeare-intended doubling scheme, entrances might be late or otherwise flubbed. Now, I would argue that you can either claim to be doing the best of all possible Midsummers or ask an audience to indulge the limitations of your approach to the script, but you can't do both (and I would further argue that professional standards discourage doing either).
Another of Schambelan's claims is that Shakespeare is best performed with no intermission or scene breaks. It's certainly true that "Shakespeare" and "3-hour running time" need not be synonymous, but if I may make one argument in favor of intermissions: they give the audience a chance to escape. I have been known to make a grateful dash for freedom at the intermission of a particularly awful play, but, try as I might, I could find no opportunity to escape from this one. The onstage action never stopped, and we were seated too far from the only entrance to the performance space to sneak out discreetly. Even so, I considered making a run for it when George Ashiotis (the blind co-artistic director of TBTB) was alone, or mostly alone, onstage, figuring he might not be too distracted by our obvious flight... but the cast occasionally used the theatre's only exit as a stage entrance, and I was afraid I'd run smack into an entering performer while beating a retreat. So I remained in my seat, despairing, for the entire two-hour nightmare. And yes, it lasts a full 2 hours, rather than the advertised 90 minutes. The extra running time might be due to Ashiotis's failure to learn his lines -- I don't think he got through a single speech without stumbling. And speaking of Ashiotis, artistic director he may be, but he is still by far the least charismatic performer in the cast, and yet he had somehow been cast as Bottom. A completely unfunny Bottom -- you can't tell me that is what Shakespeare intended.
Before I go on, let me be clear about one thing: I really, really wanted this play to be good. The mission of Theater by the Blind -- to create opportunities for and increase awareness of visually-impaired and otherwise disabled artists -- is a vital one, and if I could think of a single positive thing to say about this production, I would gladly say it. I wish, for example, that I could say this production gave me new insight (heh) into the imagery of eyes and seeing, sight and blindness, that Shakespeare employs throughout A Midsummer Night's Dream. I wish I could say that the presence of disabled actors onstage added new depth to the lovers' ruminations on beauty and their desire for independence. It certainly might have been so: Ann Marie Morelli played Hermia in a motorized wheelchair, and in a good production that would have added a deliciously dark subtext, as well as a novel comic touch, to the lovers' slapstick argument in Act 3, Scene 2. Think of the possibilities! Hermia, from her wheelchair, shrieking, "I am not yet so low / But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes." And Helena taunting her in return: "Your hands than mine are quicker for a fray; / My legs are longer, though, to run away." How wonderful in the imagination! And yet how dull onstage!
Midsummer is probably the funniest of Shakespeare's plays -- and maybe one of the funniest plays, period -- but you wouldn't know it from this production. Oh, you might amuse yourself, as I did, by listening for line readings indicating that the actor doesn't understand what he or she is saying -- you'll find plenty. But the director isn't content to let his actors simply misread their lines. In order to differentiate the rude mechanicals from the other characters (played as they were by the same actors, in not-at-all evocative costumes), Schambelan has the actors speaking their lines in heavy, completely random accents -- Peter Quince was Jamaican, Bottom was Slavic, etc. I only wish I were kidding. The actor playing Puck also adopts a different accent for each appearance, which I suppose was meant to be "funny." The costumes add nothing in the way of clarity or imagination; Schambelan is very proud of the actors' quick changes, but it would have been far more effective to simply dress everyone in black, rather than to have them change, however quickly, from one boring costume to another. The set design is equally boring, and the double casting requires all of the spell-casting and such to take place offstage, which makes the plot nearly impossible to follow. People are forever delivering their lines into the wings, or shouting from offstage (you are supposed to guess which character is talking, presumably, based on the accents). The action that does happen onstage is blocked so that much of it takes place in downstage corners of the playing area (it isn't exactly a "stage"), where the actors are all but hidden from view for anyone not in the front row. And as for the "9 songs" advertised? Let's just say we're working with a really loose definition of "song."
As I said above, the final scene, where the Athenians watch the mechanicals' production of "Pyramus and Thisbe," is interminable and totally unfunny, which is hard to believe, since it makes me laugh out loud on the page. Now that I think about it, though, I begin to wonder whether Schambelan's approach isn't successful after all. Describing his ("revolutionary") casting philosophy, he writes in his program notes, "The troupe doing the play-within-the-play is the whole troupe, so the piece snaps into focus." And it is true that, seen through the filter of the play-within-a-play, this production of Midsummer makes a perverse kind of sense. From the unnecessary prologue telling the audience how to interpret the play to the bad casting, incomplete memorization of lines, silly directorial choices and unfunny comedic touches, this production comes very close to suggesting what Midsummer would look like if it were performed entirely by Bottom and Co. So if that was the intention, TBTB has found success, and if, like Theseus, Duke of Athens, you are inclined to see a play you know will be terrible, you could hardly find a better candidate. "If we imagine no worse of them than they of themselves, they may pass for excellent men" -- truer words were never spoken. But I myself take more after Hippolyta, in that "I love not to see wretchedness o'ercharged," and I must say, Puck's final apology to the audience -- "If we shadows have offended," etc. -- has never seemed so necessary, or so inadequate.