Of all of Shakespeare’s comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is perhaps one of the most intricate and dazzling, not only on paper to readers, but also when performed on stage for a live audience. Between the tangled, dramatic love stories, the mythical setting filled with magical beings and tricks, and the comedy of a play within a play within a dream, it makes sense that this play would have a variety of interpretations on the stage. Of the many recordings of performances offered to the public, the 2014 Los Angeles Shakespeare in the Park performance, put on by the Shakespeare by the Sea Company, stood out as especially successful, and evoked much of what one might imagine having seen at an Elizabethan playhouse during Shakespeare’s time. Overall, there were a few main aspects of this particular performance that made it such a success, including the way the company took advantage of their outdoor venue and used it to increase the audience’s engagement and the way in which the individual actors/actresses played up the comedy of their characters in both their interactions with one another and in their soliloquies.
From the beginning, one of the main points of this video that gave it a more credible and well-rounded feel was its opening—before the actual performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream even began, a narrator gave a “behind the scenes” look at how the participating actors and staff came together to build and produce the stage and setting. As this particular performance was performed live in an outdoor park, it was especially interesting as an observer to witness how everything came together; the narrator emphasized how the same people who were manually building the set would be the same ones who would bring it to life in just a few hours, which enriched the overall impact of the play, as opposed to a pre-recorded movie or film. It reminded the audience that there is more to the play than just the 1-2 hours of live acting, and brought a well-rounded understanding of the true talent of Shakespeare from the 1590’s to the modern day.
Another reason Shakespeare by the Sea’s interpretation was so impactful was because of the theatrical and improvisational liberty they took with the characters, especially with the character of Bottom. Because this play was performed outside and live, so there was no room for special effects or big changes of scenery, they chose to focus on the content of the play itself, and play up the comedy by being not only overdramatic in their acting, including body movement, voice inflection, etc, but also being especially conscious of the audience and physically interacting with the crowd of people, keeping them engaged and drawing them into the action of the play. The best example was when Nick Bottom wove his way through the audience in the opening scene, addressing audience members directly, claiming he lived and slept on the very turf they were sitting on, and even physically scooting one women over to sit next to her and watch the performance until his character was needed again on the stage. Many times during their interactions with each other, the characters would stop and address the audience, often delivering comedic lines at the expense of their fellow characters, or, in the case of Puck, chirping, “I’m invisible, you can’t see me!” before diving behind a set piece to “observe” Demetrius and Helena’s conversation in the woods. The actors had limited props, but exploited that for all it was worth, which added to the humor (for example, Bottom’s donkey head was simply a strapped on nose and a fluffy-eared headband, yet the other characters still acted terrified when he first appeared). Even on such a small stage, the actors used their ultimate props—their bodies—to emphasize the qualities of each character, such as the goofiness of Oberon and Bottom, the “knight-like” attitude of Demetrius, and the female dramatism of Helena. Their actions were almost indicative of miming, which was comedic on the surface but, again, spoke to what one may presume was the original nature of the actors back in Shakespeare’s day.
Overall, this performance was as enjoyable as it was educational—it brought out just the right amount of comedy through the staging and acting, but balanced that with a realistic, if not still silly and a little overdramatic, interpretation of an authentic Shakespearean play. Compared to the many movies and other versions of the plays that have been done, especially in this day and age, it is quite rare to find one as unique as LA’s Shakespeare by the Sea Company. It not only makes me appreciate the value of quality acting, but it also inspires me to take advantage of Knoxville’s similar concept, “Shakespeare in the Square,” and who knows, maybe encounter LA’s traveling acting company while I’m there!