Thursday, 1 August 2013

Week Fifteen, A Midsummer Night's Dream

1st August 2013, A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Synetic Theater

This is my second visit to ‘DC’s premier physical theater’ so I had a fair idea of what I would be getting. The Synetic’s speciality is wordless theatre, telling stories though action alone. My first visit was for a performance of The Three Musketeers which included some dialogue alongside the dance though, so I wasn’t getting the full-force of the Synetic experience in that show. In that earlier case, the dance/mime aspects were better than the spoken sections, so my expectations for a full dance/mime play were high. Even the thought of seeing a ‘daring’ and ‘innovative’ interpretation of Shakespeare doesn’t cause me the usual fear, for the simple reason that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of my least favourite Shakespeare plays. They could have distorted the story as much as they fancied without blighting any beloved memories of mine.

The performance opened in darkness, with unseen dancers moving, seemingly haphazardly, across the stage holding small lights. It was as though a swarm of fireflies were floating frenetically in the night. But as the stage grew lighter, the music took on a tenor suggestive of eastern mysticism, the performers moving like Indian temple dancers and the lights now obviously mini electric candles, evocative of Diwali, the Festival of Lights. Finally, two more dancers emerged, more gloriously arrayed than the others, Titania and Oberon. But Titania as Hindu Goddess. There then follows a bizarre prologue to the play in which we see Puck being born (fully grown) years earlier from a mother who then dies, leaving him to be reared by the faerie monarchs.

Outlandish and captivating so far.

Then the story cut to the more prosaic present, in Athens, where Hermia is due to be married by Duke Theseus to Lysander. But Hermia really wants to marry Demetrius and Hermia’s friend Helena wants to marry Lysander (but he’s seemingly in love with Hermia). So there follows the standard Shakespearean story of the youngsters fleeing into the woods where they are the focus of Puck’s mischievous magic, and all is chaos until the denouement when everybody loves the person they are supposed to love and Theseus agrees to let them all be married. Along the way we have the domestic tiff between Oberon and Titania and the incredibly dull sections with Bottom and his fellow actors. All told without words.

The Synetic is a small theatre and for this show I’d bagged an especially good central second row seat from which to appreciate the physicality of cutting edge dance. I was not disappointed. There are some fantastic uses of movement to create illusion, such as the early section with Demetrius running on the spot and somebody running past him breaking paper doors over him to create the illusion that Demetrius is running through a building and barging through doors (you probably had to be there). Titania and Oberon’s battle over Puck, with the three actors suggesting magical forces at play purely from their own movements, was delightful and stunning. The crowded movement scenes, as in The Three Musketeers, were the most engaging, and another excellent scene was that when the enchanted Demetrius and Lysander were fighting over Helena and fighting off Hermia. There was lots of playfully raunchy humour in that scene too (more Benny Hill than anything actually erotic), which was charming in its knowing innocence. But Puck (Alex Mills), even when alone on the stage, was the real star of the show throughout. Whether climbing up a rope, jumping onto the moon, doing back-flips, contorting himself like a yogi or walking around on his hands, every leap and twist was so natural and, seemingly, effortlessly that one could not help but be impressed. The scene where is was seemingly being pulled all over the stage by a small flower in his hand sounds pretty feeble in description, but actually both funny and beautiful. Really.

Of course, Shakespeare is rightly loved for the power of his words, so you can’t take all the words out and expect every single thing to be hunky dory. For one thing, the performers’ actions have to be extremely obvious to make sure everybody sees them, especially when there are multiple actors on the stage. The jokes were often particularly banal (fart noises, really?), such as depicting Helena’s unrequited longing by having her swig dramatically from an oversized bottle whisky and Hermia overacting when appearing drunk at her engagement party. Shakespeare was at fault for the most tedious, cringe-worthy sections, which were the scenes involving Bottom and the play within a play. These sections are the key reason, for me, that the play doesn’t keep me gripped whoever is performing it. Dull with dialogue, dull without. Nonetheless, there were a number of laugh out loud moments, especially relating to Helena’s attempted wooing of Lysander. The actress playing Helena (Emily Whitworth) has a real gift for comedy.

One of the strongest aspects of the performance was the original score by Constantine Lortkipanidze, who really ought to be scoring major films. The music always added to, and never distracted from, the action. He also had a small part in the cast as the pianist accompanying Bottom’s play, where his musical accompaniment was the highlight (indeed, the only light) of those otherwise dull sections.

Overall, it wasn’t always as funny as I might have liked, but I was still swept along by sheer admiration for the acrobatic feats of dance and movement. For me, this made a bad Shakespeare play watchable. I would love to see a Synetic version of a Shakespeare play that I actually like, but unfortunately I’ll be leaving before the new season begins. The Synetic gives me one more reason to return to DC in the future.

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