An historic performance of 'Midsummer Night's Dream'
Our six-year-old granddaughter, Hannah, recently starred as the littlest fairy, Yum-Yum, in a production of William Shakespeare's frolicsome comedy, "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The comedy took place at The College of New Rochelle and we trekked down to the college's nicely intimate Romita Auditorium, which comfortably holds about 100 seats. We were then specifically seated by our daughter, Amy, a professor of history at CNR, where she said Hannah would emerge right into the audience.
The CNR Dramatic Society has been entertaining students and public since 1906 and present artistic director Laurie Peteron Castaldo has been staging whiz bangs for years, utilizing students, faculty, townspeople and a core of pros she brings up from Manhattan.
The last time I saw a production of "Dream" was shortly after Shakespeare & Company came to the Berkshires and settled down at The Mount, Edith Wharton's dream house, which was in the process of becoming a structural nightmare. When they first established roots here in 1978, the Shakespereans' ambitions were high and their funds low so they utilized the house's capacious balconies, the woods and the surrounding flora and fauna for their stage, the scenes changing from one moment to the next with no stage hands necessary.
Tina Packer directed it personally, and Tony Simotes, who has succeeded Packer as artistic director at Shakespeare, played Puck. For no reason, after all these years, I can still hear him braying, "What fools these mortals be."
It is estimated that "Dream" was written between 1594 and 1596, when Shakespeare was still in the lust stage of life. There are three interlocking plots, each one more or less ridiculous than the others, and there are entrances and exits from all directions. The characters and the fairies misplace love all over the place. The CNR production takes a bit to establish who is who to whom so the first scene plods a little with untrained diction, but the second scene blares forth with gusto as the six peasants, dubbed the "rude mechanicals," establish their acting credentials.
Most notable among the "mechanicals" is one Dennis Whetsel as Bottom the weaver. Mr. Whetsel's experience with Shakespearean comedy shows brilliantly as does his self description in the playbill where he admits to studying with Sanford Meisner at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse "when Jesus wore diapers." Our granddaughter, however, made her debut with her role, although she has quite a bit of experience of being a Yum-Yum. In her biographical description, she gives special thanks to Laurie, Amelia and Cobweb "for making this so fun."
And she objectively ends the bio in the third person. "Someday, Hannah hopes to direct." May I remind you, that's our granddaughter.
Diarist Samuel Pepys saw "Dream" in 1660 in an adapted form, which was quite common, and considered it "the most insipid, ridiculous play that I ever saw." That production was without our granddaughter. It wasn't until the 1840s that the play was revived and then for the next 70 years the roles of Puck and Oberon were played by women.
German director Max Reinhardt did a spectacular production in Los Angeles in 1934 with Mickey Rooney, Olivia de Havilland, Dancer Katherine Dunham, Butterfly McQueen and music by Mendelssohn. The show was a success and the Warner brothers decided to go for the film. They hired Rooney and de Havilland plus James Cagney for the role of Bottom. My mother took me to see the movie at the Capitol Theatre and Rooney scared me as the wild boy. The plot attracted many directors because to them Theseus and his palace represented restraint and the forest was a place where anything went.
One of my favorite Shakespearean lines is in this play. It comes after the "mechanicals" present their play within the play, their little "tragedy" about Pyramus and Thisbe, to the Duke and his court. Theseus leans back and says, "This passion, and the death of a dear friend, would go near to make a man look sad."
Also in the cast is junior Amelia Ellis of Great Barrington who in the role of Helena makes a fine misplaced lover. We are not related.
Everybody should have a "Midsummer Night's Dream" some time in his or her life. Biographers should also take note that this was the first production in our granddaughter's career.
Milton Bass is a regular Eagle contributor.
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