Balancing humour and darkness in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
By Caroline Ho, Arts Editor
Opening this weekend, Douglas College’s Departments of Theatre and Stagecraft & Technology are bringing to the stage A Midsummer Night’s Dream, presenting a considerably darker take on the tale than one might expect for this classic Shakespearean comedy.
Director Thrasso Petras opted for A Midsummer Night’s Dream partly because it offers many potential approaches, giving cast and crew a lot of room for experimentation. “It’s the kind of play that’s expansive,” said Petras. “You could produce it in so many different ways. There’s so many options, because it’s a fantastical world.”
Against the backdrop of an upcoming wedding between the Duke of Athens and the Queen of the Amazons, the play follows several groups of characters. Four young Athenians, entangled in a knot of clandestine love, flee into the forest. A troupe of six amateur actors, the Mechanicals, are rehearsing for a play that they will perform at the royal wedding. Meanwhile, the King and Queen of the Fairies are embroiled in their own disputes, and human and fairy romances become entwined through a blend of mishaps and magic.
Petras’ approach to A Midsummer Night’s Dream is primarily inspired by a production of the play that he saw in Munich, Germany, in 2009. Although he doesn’t speak German, the play was so intense and visceral that he felt he would have been able to follow along even if he hadn’t already been familiar with the plot. And what especially stuck out about this production, he said, was how dark it was—even as a comedy celebrating a marriage, Shakespeare’s text doesn’t shy away from violence and abuse in relationships.
The Douglas Theatre Department’s production will be along a similar vein. Petras said that audiences who have seen darker productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will likely “get it,” but it may be more of a surprise to people who are only familiar with the more light-hearted, fantastic side of the story.
Striking the right level of darkness and presenting the grimmer aspects both impactfully and sensitively, said Petras, has been the biggest challenge. “How do we deal with this material in a way that’s not glossing over it and at the same time in a way that’s not irreverent?” He admits he doesn’t have a concrete answer quite yet, but that is one powerful reason for staging this production: “That’s the point, that there are no real answers, we have to deal with things as they come up and accept that there are dark aspects to humanity.”
However, audiences won’t be totally mired in despair, as the play is still very much a comedy, and it will have about equal amounts of humour and darkness. Comedic elements are interspersed throughout the play, giving the audience a perfect balance of sombre and silly, mainly with the antics of the Mechanicals as they practice for their play within a play.
The key to being humorous as an actor (or as an actor playing an actor), said Petras, is to commit to the character and to figure out his or her objectives. Rather than merely trying to show how funny something is, an actor should be true to the writing and to what the character really wants. He explained, “Whether you’re a character playing a character, or just a character, regardless of how many levels there are, if you commit to that and go to the extreme that’s indicated in the text, that’s what’s going to be funny.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens at the Laura C. Muir Performing Arts Theatre on Friday, March 17, and runs until March 24, with a free preview on March 16 at 7:30 p.m. Details on tickets and shows can be found at midsummeratdouglas.bpt.me.