Kevin C. K. Berg is a guest staff writer for Hitting The Stage. He is also an actor, director, and improviser who is currently an MFA in Directing candidate at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.
Jordan Clara Ihilani Sasaki as Lysander, Alisa Boland as Hermia, Amrita Malik as Puck. Photo by Brad Goda Photography.
Whether Hamlet changed your life when you saw it performed on the West End or you had to study Romeo and Juliet in your awkward teen years, the Bard of Avon’s works, and more importantly words, have an ever present place in our global zeitgeist. But what happens when you take Shakespeare’s language out of Shakespeare? Director Tony Pisculli and the cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream ventured to find the answer to that question. And find it they did.
The 2016 season of the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival concludes with this classic comedy of love, loss, magic, and more love. For those unfamiliar, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream takes place in Ancient Greece and follows events surrounding the marriage of Theseus (Leigh Sholler) the Duke of Athens, to Hippolyta (Emily Hoadley) the Queen of the Amazons. The plot focuses on four young lovers and a group of amateur thespians (the Mechanicals) who venture into the surrounding forest for a variety of reasons. Little do they know that fairies inhabit this particular forest and have set out to use the innocent Greeks as tools to accomplish their supernatural will.
The twist with this production, however, is that it’s presented in invented language. Shakespeare’s words have been split into two dialects, one for the Greeks and another for the Fae. Although the differences in dialects may be hard to ascertain, the details are there for those who would search. Instead of relying on language, the cast must rely on intonation, physicality, and focus to convey the story. And, overall, they succeed.
The experiment to perform Shakespeare-less Shakespeare allowed the skills, research, and physical work of each individual actor to shine through in each performance. And while the piece was entrancing when everything was moving and focused, it cracked when the actors lost their intention, their goal. In moments of unclear soliloquy or unnecessary pauses, I would find myself trying to translate the show myself, to figure out where we were in this familiar story. Fortunately, these moments were few and far between and did not break the overall show.
The show itself was well cast and suffered no great weakness. The four lovers, Hermia (Alisa Boland), Demetrius (Shayna Chung), Lysander (Jordan Clara Ihilani Sasaki), and Helena (Jennifer Fachan) formed a strong and supportive unit, playing on all the right heartstrings. I was delighted that the Fae, whose inhuman movement was superbly directed by Becky McGarvey, were unlike any I had seen before. They were darker and more foreboding than the almost pixie-like creatures I have come to expect with Midsummer. While all solid, two characters shined the night that I watched: Oberon (Stephanie Keiko Kong) King of the Fairies and Nick Bottom (Christina Uyeno) the Lead Actor of the Mechanicals. Both Kong and Uyeno controlled the stage whenever they were on, their understanding of character polished and their intention absolute. They never wavered in their focus and were truly a joy to watch.
The technical elements worked to enfold the entire audience into the story. The set, with its green string walls, coupled with the lights were welcoming and allowed the audience to be fully captivated by the piece. Kudos must be given to Rose Wolfe and Michelle Umipeg who designed costumes and hair/makeup respectively. Almost reptilian in nature, the Fae were able to have the strong and foreboding impact they had, in no small part, do to the work of these inspired designers.
And finally, I will say that the Mechanical’s play-within-a-play was the funniest, fastest, and best directed version I have seen in my life. All of them are to be commended on their performance.
So overall, the play is more than worth your time. Pisculli’s direction, coupled with the performance of the actors, has created a show that, while not linguistically Shakespeare, succeeds as both an experiment and a faithful interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And while sticklers may not like the path that they’ve taken, I think the director’s notes say it best: “If you’ve come tonight hoping to hear Shakespeare’s language, you’re going to be disappointed. If you’ve come to watch A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I sincerely hope you’ll be delighted.” I certainly was and think you will too.