A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most reliable crowd pleasers. Star-crossed lovers, romantic quarrels, magic and confusion and mistaken identity, and a hilarious play-within-a-play staged by a group of ruffians—this play offers more payoff for less audience effort than most of Shakespeare’s work, and can be counted on for broad audience appeal.
But Portland Center Stage has not merely cashed in for an easy season closer. PCS Artistic Director Marissa Wolf, who directed the show, and her imaginative cast and crew have offered a fresh take that gently but firmly pushes us toward even deeper delights.
The various stories in Midsummer revolve around love: Why do we love? From whence does desire spring? How does power play into the equation? Who may dictate what form love takes?
Wolf has wisely seized the opportunity to place these questions in the mouths and bodies of a cast that is ready to play with gender and identity. She has created a deliberately queer Midsummer, in which Helena is played by a buoyant Tyler Andrew Jones (he/him), and Lysander is played by the endlessly versatile Treasure Lunan (they/them), and where the love of Lysander and Demetrius (Jesse Weil, he/him) shifts between Helena and Hermia (Nicole Marie Green, she/they) with no obvious concern for who “belongs” with whom. These partner shifts are part of the play’s essential conceit, but feel especially resonant here, in a world in which gender and sexuality are not a matter of concern in any obvious way.
It’s difficult to capture how beautifully Wolf and the cast carry this off. The direction here is nimble and playful, not at all didactic. The text is Shakespeare’s. And yet, from the very beginning, before we even know what we are about to see and who is playing what part, Muffie Delgado Connelly’s brilliant choreography in an opening dance sequence locates the story in the bodies, and communicates that we are in a different, more spacious world. The bodies shift, and encircle, and push away, and pull in, communicating that the possibilities are different here. I consciously thought moments after that opening sequence that I wished I could see it again after the play was over.
When we come to the early scene in which Hermia’s father, Egeus, (Andrés Alcalá) enlists the power of law to enforce his intention that she marry Demetrius, even though she loves Lysander, the words seem to cut deeper. Lunan’s Lysander moves fluidly across a spectrum of gender, sometimes presenting as masculine and sometimes not exactly inside the usual gender binary at all. I felt myself wince in a more particular way at Egeus’s directive that love between Lysander and Hermia is forbidden—and yet no one talks about gender, and gender ultimately doesn’t really bear discussion. Staged in this way, gender expression is no more than a brief distraction; love really is love is love is love, even while power and love may also be connected. So, we can move to the deeper question: What exactly is love? Who decides? And how?
When Helena enters, the name has not been changed. As embodied by Jones, her gender expression includes delightful range that is never commented upon. She is Helena; she loves who she loves. And she is so compelling that when she is unloved, we can hardly understand why—who could not desire this Helena?
Watching these four actors spar and woo and couple and uncouple—and eventually wrestle and embrace and pull away and pursue—is the rarest of delights. All four are fully inside their bodies; the movements are often comic, frequently quite vigorous. Choreography and movement and intimacy all work together to capture something deep about the chaos of love finding a place to light, its vigor and fickleness and flighty tenderness. Later in the play, as the lovers slumber and the magic sets to work to right things so that the correct two lovers end up with the two the play decides are correct, a dream sequence captures that dance of intimacy. Wolf, Connelly, intimacy coordinator Amanda Vander Hyde, and these four agile and generous performers have managed a lightness that is also deep and very true.
The production offers many other delights. Andy Perkins is another standout as Bottom, delivering a broadly comic take on the quintessential over-actor. And most of the cast members do double and triple duty, displaying remarkable physical and comedic range. Even while there are some questionable and unresolved power moves in this play, the warmth of this production and its cast carries you past any concern about that. This journey is about delight, and about imagining something better.