William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comic play within a play and right up Gertrude Stein's alley. The Steiny Road Poet conjectures that Stein, because she often made reference to Shakespeare in mostly covert ways, might have taken inspiration from this madcap fantasia in her many off-the-wall performance pieces.
The Folger Theatre of Washington DC has increased the level of lunacy (a good
word to use since one of the players enacts the role of the moon) in its
shortened version of A Midsummer Night's Dream (seen August 10) which ran
from July 12 to August 28, 2022, at The National Building Museum. The original
play usually runs two and half to three hours, but Victor Malana Maog's colorful
adaptation runs 90 minutes without intermission.
Overall, A Midsummer Night's Dream is a series of love stories. Number one
concerns the marriage of Theseus—Duke of Athens—and Hippolyta—Queen of
the Amazons. The play being worked on by a bumbling group of craftsmen is for
the competitive entertainment of the royal couple. The story of their play
involves the forbidden love (let's call this number two) between the Babylonian
characters Pyramus and Thisby who were first written about by Ovid in his Metamorphoses. Love story number three involves four young
Athenians—Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena—who get turned around
by hormones, a rabid father (Hermia's), and magic dust. Number four
showcases the love spat between the jealous Oberon, King of the Fairies, and the
wily Titania, Queen of the Fairies, who is holding close a foundling boy. To
complicate these relationships, pranks are played by a character named Puck
who often works with the fairies to spread their magic dust and create havoc
In Maog's adaptation, which is situated in present time, the craftsman Bottom
(played by Jacob Ming-Trent) whose head becomes that of a donkey's is courted
by Oberon who is under the spell of magic dust. This significant change from
the original script where Titania is love dusted and therefore shamed for falling
for Bottom (now literally a man looking partially like an ass), becomes a queer
love story. Even before Oberon (Rotimi Agbabiaka) is dusted so he will fall for
Bottom, he is costumed as a drag queen in a stunning crimson satin strapless
gown pulled down his svelte and naked torso to his waist and his feet are shod
in high-heeled platform shoes. The costume suggests Oberon wants the boy his
queen is protecting more than he wants her.
Less anyone think that the fairy king's costume outshines the queen's, a pause is
necessary here. When Titania (Nubia M. Monks) enters Jim Hunter's "Festival
Stage" which initially seems like a mirage floating in the National Building
Museum's Great Hall with its soaring ceiling and balconies, her entrance makes
the audience gasp. Her dress has a train that starts in one of the upper balconies
as she stretches across the stage to greet Oberon. Olivera Gajic's costume
designs are showstoppers and rightly so for such a magical story and, in
particular, this adaptation.
When the play opens, two contemporary songs present as if coming from a disk
jockey's mixing board—"I Only Have Eyes for You" and "Dream a Little Dream
of Me". Sound Designer and composer Brandon Wolcott does this to limelight
the pending union of Theseus and Hippolyta. The action on stage soon erupts as
the ragtag players assemble to get their play together. Who will play what part is
a big issue and it becomes clear that Bottom wants the main role as Pyramus.
The scene is contentious and jazzed and the language is not always
Shakespeare's. Right away the audience learns that Bottom clearly has the
required talent and Jacob Ming-Trent as Bottom steals the show not only in this
scene, but in every scene where he appears. His ability to speak, sing, dance,
and move is captivating and memorable. After he loses the head of an ass, he as
Bottom through his gestures that describe the donkey's muzzle never lets the
audience forget what happened to him.
The dancing as choreographed by Alexandra Beller often has the exuberant
touches of West African elements especially in the numbers led by Bottom.
Every aspect of this adaption expresses high energy, authenticity, imagination.
One hopes this production of A Midsummer Night's Dream will play again and
that the Folger Theatre's archival video is better than average.
Photos: B. Diliberto