What could be more appropriate for a summer evening of Shakespeare than A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Granville Island on an outdoor stage? Saturday night in Vancouver on the last weekend in July is typically the start of the fireworks festival so I was a little worried that heading into the heart of the city was going to put me at odds with the hordes looking for fireworks. My fears were unfounded. I was able to get to Granville Island and park with no problem and leaving the island to get back to the North Shore was even easier.
Not familiar with Midsummer Night's Dream? READ THE SYNOPSIS
Carousel Theatre has been around for a long time and is a Granville Island staple specializing in arts programming for children. In 1990 Carousel started the Teen Shakespeare Program in order to offer an intensive six week program for exceptional teen actors under the direction of working theatre professionals. I had a chance to speak with Mike Stack, the Lead Instructor and Director, just before the ‘curtain’ went up. He was effusive in his remarks about Shakespeare and theatre in general, especially for kids. Noting Carousel’s audience is primarily kids and educators, being able to put kids on the stage to entertain and educate their peers is a powerful way to engage children and young adults in theatre. Stack likened the stage to playing dress-up, noting when you play dress-up you can be anything you want to be and that is a powerful life lesson for kids.
I didn’t know what to expect and was delightfully relieved that the production values were high. Staging, costuming, sound and lighting were all handled professionally. The production is cleverly set up almost as a vaudeville production with music and costumes strongly reminiscent and drawn from the era of the early 20th century. It’s a convention that works well on an outdoor stage where there are no wings for scene and costume changes. The actors, when offstage, are seated on the grass next to the stage and when they enter stage left or right they often don the costume pieces that help tell us who they are.
The acting is where the greatest challenges were evident and these kids all displayed talents that will develop and blossom with practice and experience. Shakespeare can be challenging and some performances were stronger than others. My favourite was the young lad, Amitai Heyl, who played Flute. Although a relatively small role, he never missed a chance to make the most of his lines and his character.
There were two Pucks sharing the role, Lucy Layton and Piper Trounce. It worked well. Giving such acting meat to two young actors makes sense as Puck is one of Shakespeare’s major roles and the two characterizations blended together very well.
The cast were all remarkable in handling their lines. I only noticed one slip. The challenge of the text for these young actors was most evident in the longer speeches where the actors have to make the play move forward, filling in off-stage action for the audience, and articulating the character twists that contribute to the plot layers. There were missed opportunities, especially with Shakespeare's lovely poetry; often the actors were just saying their lines to get to the end. When an actor did go deeper it stood out and made one remember the deep richness of Shakespeare's words. Atticus Cseh as Bottom put on a bit of a north England accent when he became the ass which worked well with his portrayal.
I love Midsummer Night's Dream. It brings back fond memories of my early love of theatre that was sparked when I was a teen and used to go to the Manitoba Theatre Centre. That was where I experienced my first Dream and for a long time I measured all others against that little masterpiece directed by the famed John Hirsch. The plot layers are interwoven in a way that keeps us involved and the pace moving. The theme of lovers is not just doubled as was common in plays of the era but here is tripled. We have Theseus and Hippolyta - King and Queen of Athens; Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius - the young confused Athenian couples; Oberon and Titania King and Queen of the Fairies as well as the comic characters of Pyramus and Thysbe - the unlucky lovers from the play within a play.
As is so often in Shakespearean comedies, the lovers are the central characters and yet the true weight of the plot is much more than a tale of love at risk of going awry. The threat to Hermia that she give herself to her father's chosen husband or lose her life, the bullying of rejected Helena, and the humiliation of Titania are all themes that hold much darker undertones than one expects in a comedy, especially today with such increased consciousness about the bullying, harassment and devaluing of women in certain cultures. None of these ideas were given any airtime in this particular performance and the play romps from scene to scene: from Athenians to fairies, to the Mechanicals - the low born comic relief that is an essential ingredient in Shakespeare's work.
I would recommend this production to those who want to enjoy light diversion of a summer's evening, who will enjoy supporting kids as they tackle the struggles of learning their craft. Although it maybe be rough around the edges and the kids are at different levels of skill, the energy and dedication by the young performers, supported by the loving loyal audience of family and friends ensures an enjoyable evening.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing every night until August 11 at the Performance Works Outdoor Stage at Ron Basford Park and admission is free.
~ reviewed by Evelyn McKelvie
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