- Shakespeare Popular and Populist
A distinction between popular and populist theatre was evident this season in two Minneapolis Shakespeare productions: the Guthrie Theater’s [End Page 68] remounting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, originally produced in 1997, and Ten Thousand Things’ all-male Richard III. Both were directed by their respective companies’ artistic directors.
Joe Dowling’s recent productions of Hamlet, As You Like It, and, in their new venue designed by Jean Nouvel, The Merchant of Venice, have evinced his guiding principle as artistic director of the Guthrie: accessibility. As head of arguably the most prominent regional theatre in the upper Midwest, Dowling has an understandable penchant for producing popular Shakespeare: most people here admit that his ability to draw audiences has helped to secure the Guthrie’s new digs overlooking the Mississippi, with three stages under the same roof as opposed to one. But lots of Shakespeare aficionados, amateur and professional, myself among them, have been carping at or at least privately lamenting Dowling’s tendency to oversimplify Shakespeare, to avoid risks in developing Shakespeare productions. We keep asking, What about nuance? What about “art”? The latest production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream offered Dowling’s retort: popular Shakespeare makes good Shakespeare; the two are not at odds.
The Guthrie Dream engaged the audience through spectacle, music, and movement; lively young actors; and lightness of touch. As in its original mounting, Oberon and other fairies made various entrances on wires; movement, often to music, was lively yet graceful. Keith Thomas’s music was eclectic, ranging from Goth and industrial to R & B and even Disney-style showstoppers, all based on verses from the text. At one point Stephen Pelinski’s Bottom mimicked Elvis. Puck and the Fairies alternated between punk and R & B; First Fairy Erin Cherry did a knockout job with some Shakespearean verses in the latter style, which Puck found very appealing (2.1). Except for Bottom and the mechanicals, as well as Egeus, the cast appeared exceptionally youthful—even, at least comparatively, in the cases of Oberon and Titania, who doubled as the more strait-laced Theseus and Hippolyta. The “rude mechanicals” were most reminiscent of the original 1997 production—homespun “Minnesotan” community wannabes determined to play before the Duke. There were some very witty touches here, most notably the awkward, middle-aged flirtation between Sally Wingert’s Starveling and Jim Lichtscheidl’s Quince, and the latter’s frustration and futile attempts to control Bottom. But the truly novel and crowd-pleasing business was provided by Randy Reyes...