July 24, 2014
Perhaps the only way to transition gracefully from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to King Lear is via a day trip to calm and intense shores of Lake Huron. Or so we thought.
The one great advantage of traveling in the environmental wrecking ball of an automobile rather than the regimen of train or plane is that it’s easier to stray from our course without a notion of advanced planning. Certainly we could have interrupted our stay at the already out-of-the-way theater festival Stratford, Ontario using public transportation for a jaunt 90 minutes even further out-of-the-way to see one of the five Great Lakes. But it would have taken much more than a simple, “Let’s pack a picnic and head West, but make sure we’re back by 6 for dinner before the play.”
And so it was Huron that provided a respite in the middle of the gradually rising drama of the staged madness of Stratford. We sat and emptied our minds a bit as we prepared for a fourth and most severe play of the festival.
If you are fortunate enough to travel to Stratford with my parents, as we are, a day follows a plotted and exceptional routine. Vigorous 5k morning walk at 7am. Coffee at Balzacs. The breakfast part of the As You Like It Motel bed and breakfast accommodations. A bit of shopping “downtown.” Lunch at the room (cheese and fruit). A play. Preparations for dinner. Dinner out. A play. Rinse, repeat at 7am the following day.
We started halfway through one of these cycles with the innocent absurdity of Alice Through the Looking Glass, a joyful rendering of the darker half of Carrol’s Alice tales with bicycle set pieces and a fight scene played out in bubble suits. The following day, it was the sheer athletic marvel of the Gershwin revue Crazy For You. More advanced planning courtesy of my mother planted us close enough to perceive the delicate and strenuous movements of the choreography as the dancers worked their way through choral number and choral number. We were exhausted five rows from the stage.
But the day was not done. As we experimented with Indian food in Ontario. I have never come across a mediocre Indian restaurant. They are either atrocious, as they are in Brooklyn, or glorious, as this as they are in Queens. Stratford’s was one of the latter. Full, we pressed on through to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Played in nice contrast to Julie Taymor’s staging we had seen earlier this year. Where Taymor counted on spectacle to carry her show, this version relied on the prevalent gender bending of the work to comment on the inclusionary nature of love. The wedding banquet that opens the play was for that of two men. Three of the four lovers who confuse their desires at the hands of fairies in the Athenian woods were portrayed as and by women. The faerie queen and king were both male. Additionally, much of the supporting cast entered well before the play began, chatting with the audience as they gathered for the initial feast. Pop songs were sensibly placed at appropriate moment.
This version was as comfortable as the New York version had been grand. A bit too comfortable for the woman next to us. She had come alone, and as the cast gathered casually on stage with audience still entering, she stood up, said, “I can see why it’s been panned” and left. Leaving us to question, who would make the effort of showing up at all if you could ascertain before the start of the production that you were going to hate it.
We had no such problems. The key with interpreting the classics is to find relevance without falling into gimmickry (Baz Luhrmann) or playing it so straight as to fail to offer anything new (Kenneth Branagh). The writing and words are there for the taking, the effort is in the delivery. Lear can offer commentary on aging, insanity, loyalty, and family. This version let the madness lead the way. Rather than having the old king lose his mind as the result of the machinations of his daughters, here it is his dwindling capacity that leads his family into rash and awful deeds. At the end, as always, everyone is dead. Or in Midsummer where everyone is married. The wonder for us, as an audience is to discover how they got there once again.