Like drinking black coffee or craft beer, the director Peter Sellars is very much an acquired taste. You can continue to persist at it, hoping that one day the mystery will eventually turn into a new and refined hobby. For some, this will be the case; for others, perhaps more than half of those who venture into uncharted territory, it will have been a fruitless endeavour. The Stratford Festival's "A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Chamber Play" is very much in this category, with the nearly two-hour play leaving audiences feeling one of three things: confused, excited, or vainly trying to recover their evening.
This Shakespearean play, written at the end of the 16th century, is one of the Bard's most oft-performed pieces, and contains a rather extensive dramatis personae. It was also performed earlier this season at Stratford with the full cast: a delightful production that both charmed and challenged the notion of theatre. But anytime you get Sellars helming a production, you can expect the result to be radically different, as his style is to deliver a performance you'd never expect seeing.
It was the case with the chamber version of "Dream", so dubbed because Sellars reduced the dozens of actors to a mere four, tasking them with handling multiple roles each. Further, he stripped "Dream" of some of the dialogue, turned the Stratford Masonic Concert Hall into a stark, minimalistic stage with a ceiling that looked like a hoarder's garage (although, the original chairs from the inaugural 1953 season of the Stratford Festival were a nice touch), and only used lighting (James F. Ingalls) to signal any sort of scene or character switch.
It's a little difficult to make just one opinion about Sellars's "Dream", as it occupied space at both ends of the spectrum. His vision was very clearly a challenging and intelligent interpretation, forcing the viewer to really sit up and pay attention to understand everything. Because of how drastically he stripped everything down, the language used by Shakespeare in "Dream" took on a different, much darker meaning, with the characters now appearing like broken souls trying to find themselves in each others' reflections. It's about as full of a departure from the other Stratford production of "Dream" as you can get, with not much whimsy or charm in this one.
The actors, too, were stupendously good, and at such an equally good footing, it's not possible to isolate one over another in terms of strengths or weaknesses. Sarah Afful (Hippolyta, Helena, Puck, Thisbe), Dion Johnstone (Theseus, the Duke of Athens, Pyramus, Demetrius), Trish Lindström (Titania, Hermia, Wall) and Mike Nadajewski (Oberon, Lysander, Moonshine) all showed what great acting looks like, and captivated the audience from start to finish. What really worked in their favour was Sellars's decision to mic them, as Shakespeare's verses could be roared or whispered sotto voce for an even stronger effect.
All this, however, means nothing if the viewer can't understand what's going on, which was very much the case with "Dream". Because the actors slid into their roles so seamlessly, the average theatregoer would have to rely on the actors' body language to understand what was going on. You really need an intimate understanding of "Dream" to be able to follow along with this production, and Sellars is excluding a huge potential group of audience members.
While it can be argued that an artist shouldn't have to dumb down a production so it can appeal to a wider demographic, there are certain techniques Sellars could have employed to broaden "Dream"'s appeal without losing its power. A truly excellent production is one that contains material both the average and the passionate viewer can enjoy, and Sellars's interpretation of "Dream" felt as though he were snobbishly appealing to a very select demographic.
For instance, if he's adamant about not having any sort of set design at all and using only lights to signal changes in mood and atmosphere, why not create a more delineated lighting change to indicate when one actor slips into another character? Or perhaps a more noticeable sound change, such as the beginning or ending of a leit motif? Tareke Ortiz's sound design was powerful for both alternating between an impending rumbling earthquake and dead silence, but more deliberately demarcating the changes in accordance with the characters would have detracted nothing from the play at all.
As it stands, the chamber version of "A Midsummer's Night Dream" is an excellent choice if you're dearly familiar with the characters and the text, and one to skip if your knowledge of it is anything less than intimate. For many theatregoers, the tendency tends to fall into the latter category, and is not the kind of play you'd want to get your feet wet with at the Stratford Festival.
And for a director with the reputation of Peter Sellars, he's proving himself to be adept at putting out an intelligent production, but a very lopsided, unbalanced one, too.
"A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Chamber Play" plays at the Stratford Masonic Concert Hall through September 20. For more information and tickets, visit the Stratford Festival's website.