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A Midsummer Night's Dream

Text by: David Lumb

Winds blow the end of spring pollen, and days find one minute after another to linger: welcome, summer. As the daylight creeps onward, our flirtation with the crepuscular world becomes an infatuation, and warm summer nights inspire the unlikely. On cue, an infamous play mounts the stage and invites us to revel in possibilities on the margins of perception: William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream takes its rightful place as herald to ring in a season of passion.

Fie, you say! How can a fever dream top The Bard's purer testaments to love's embrace, first among them the immortal couple? Romeo and Juliet may host a couple whose passion mirrors their dangerous stakes, but they are a vibrant pair in a dull sea, incredulous that the world does not share their infatuation; the lovers of A Midsummer Night's Dream, on the other hand, have more infatuation than they know what to do with. For all the misplaced affection and misunderstood devotion, the fair and mundane folk tumble through their desires, heedless of consequence. That is the soul of passion — to leave caution for the day's work and revel in the mystery of the night.

On the whole, the play weaves with passion's traditional mediums: love and its bent sister, lust. Oberon, Titania, and their retinue of fae folk are the instruments that twist these oft-intersecting drives to play with the stable state of affairs at the night's beginning; and though they warp the direction of such amorous energies, the faeries' interloping doesn't magnify them. Who hasn't known the whirlwind of emotions from one love to the next, as Lysander abandons Hermia for Helena? So natural is this cruel reversal that Helena turns on Hermia for a confederate in what Helena assumes to be their ruthless joke — but neither assume foul (or fae) play. The faerie court are Shakespeare's tools to stir the passion pot — and like Puck would have us believe, we audience "have but slumber'd here / While these visions did appear." Who's to say the night's rollercoasters of love are the definite work of faerie mischief? So the play inquires and wisely never answers, providing only samples for the audience to draw example.

Although the desperate love between Lysander and Hermia may be most relatable, or the unrequited Helena the most empathic, neither holds a candle to the play's real paragon couple of passion — Titania and the bumbling Bottom. True, the passion stems from the nectar of Cupid's flower, but what better representative of heedless emotion than the mystical enabling of magic flora? Peaseblossom and Cobweb may snicker at their lady's desire, but they know better than to face the wrath of pure passion mocked, and we are treated to a scene of Messrs. Peaseblossom and Mustardseed scratching Bottom's donkey ears while the Queen of Faerie asks, "wilt thou hear some music, my sweet love?" Simple Bottom rises to the occasion by lazily commanding his new subjects, but the fae queen's earnest adoration is a far shift from her vicious earlier tirades with Oberon. So is menace hinted by the magnitude of Titania's passion — that the pendulum may shift should the spell over Titania be broken, and woe to Bottom as the audience realizes how much he must continue to please her lest he inadvertently scorn her goodwill. Thus her wild passion shows its edge.

"[Titania's] a very strong woman at the start," said Melissa Chalsma, artistic director of the Independent Shakespeare Company and portrayer of the Faerie Queen, a part she describes as liberating for Titania's completely unadulterated desire; like "how you felt when you first fell in love."

Titania is, Chalsma says, something of a force of nature, and part of the humor lies in how this elevated character comes to desire the grotesque — the donkey-man.

"It's actually quite humiliating," Chalsma said.

Perhaps Bottom is not carried away in Titania's passionate swell, because his pastime is far from romance.

"He's certainly passionate about his acting," said Danny Campbell, member of the Independent Shakespeare Company and portrayer of Bottom the weaver. "He gets swept up in Titania. He's never in control of the situation."

The disparate status between Bottom and Titania presents a stark contrast in passionate capacity, and really, how we identify with thick Bottom and ethereal Titania.

"Bottom's one of the great parts to play," Campbell said. "Everyone can relate to him — that community theater actor. Titania is the least accessible."

Passionate love alone — especially between such paramours as Bottom and Titania — is exhausting. Lucky us, for Shakespeare pokes at the passion of addled thespians to lighten the plot's burden. Bottom's troupe is the comic example of folk so devoted to their craft, they have no idea how terribly they perform. Harsh? Only if these players cared for their critics. For all the complaints lathered over the little play's dialogue, Theseus praises the troupe: "For never anything can be amiss, / When simpleness and duty tender it." Their simple passion to communicate ideas leads to silly compromises in their earnestness — evidence: the talking Wall and Moonshine, along with a roaring Snug the Lion who reassures the audience that he is really Snug and not a Lion. When partnered with the clash of passions between Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius, the ludicrous travesty of Bottom & Co.'s "Pyramus and Thisbe" breaks the tension of the heavy night. As the once-warring young lovers cheerfully mock the production, Midsummer's audience is given the space to step back and see how a little perspective can ease passion's burning conviction.

Or, as Theseus puts it, "This palpable-gross play hath well beguiled / The heavy gait of night." So the play draws to a close, and the lights threaten to chase away the twilight, but Puck's words ring past the curtain call:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,

He says not whether we dreamed for sure — no, it is our choice whether to take offense and dismiss all as a dream or to peel back the shadow and see what's hidden in a summer's night.