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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 24, 2000. All rights reserved.

Review: Students at the Threshold

E-mail: JackFlorek@princetoninfo.com

The Princeton Shakespeare Company’s reprise performances

of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" could hardly come at a better

time. With commencement day beckoning, and many college students standing

at the threshold of their "real life," what better time to

stage a play that has been said to breathe with the fragrance of springtime

and to move with the lilting energy of youth? Especially a production

that was so widely praised after its all-too-brief run in early March.

For those who missed the show then, this is an encore opportunity

to see the work of a group of uniquely talented young people. Directed

by longtime Princeton English professor Thomas P. Roche, "A Midsummer

Night’s Dream" is distinctively realized, combining Shakespeare’s

comedy with the magical music of Felix Mendelssohn, performed by the

Princeton University Orchestra and chorus. Performances take place

at Richardson Auditorium Thursday and Friday, May 25 and 26, at 7:30

p.m.

In addition to a full orchestral accompaniment, the production is

filled with glamour, glitter, romance, and eroticism. "We do about

two-thirds of the text, which is more than anybody else does,"

says Roche, noting that even at that, the performance will last nearly

three hours. But rarely is it possible to experience such raw enchantment

packed into a 180-minute time span. "The costumes are sexy and

slinky. The dresses are backless. The men of course, wear tuxedos,"

says Roche, who adds that there are a lot of quick changes.

Dapper costumes that make the young lovers look like well-heeled singles

of the 1990s are not the only cultural updatings. "In coming up

with the fairies, we wanted to keep away from that Beatrix Potter,

tippy-toe stuff," says Roche. These young adult fairies are decked

out in glittering blue-green shirts and jazzy tight black pants.

Roche, who earned his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1958, has taught there

since 1960. He says he is happy to be working on Shakespeare, although

it is not his first love. "My main focus is on English epic literature,"

he says. "I teach courses on Petrarch’s sonnets sequence, Virgil’s

`Ariosto Tosso,’ and Spenser’s `The Faerie Queene.’" About five

years ago, one of his students founded the Princeton Shakespeare Company,

and although Roche has often served as dramaturg, this is his first

time time directing. He adds, "It has been a great experience.

They are a wonderful group of students."

The production originally came together quite by accident. Last year,

Michael Pratt, artistic director of the Princeton University Orchestra,

saw a production of "Henry IV" on which Roche served as dramaturg.

He asked if Roche would be interested in collaborating on "A Midsummer

Night’s Dream," incorporating Mendelssohn’s complete incidental

music, and Roche quickly agreed. So he gathered the actors of the

Princeton Shakespeare Company, an all-undergraduate ensemble, and

embarked on a rigorous six-week rehearsal schedule.

The end result, a mere four performances, left the hardworking cast

feeling a bit let down, especially since the production was so enthusiastically

received. When the opportunity came for an encore presentation in

conjunction with a campus-wide celebratory, end-of-year mood, it was

an easy decision.

The student musicians who perform the Mendelssohn score did enjoy

a brief revival back in March. A week after the Princeton production

closed, the Princeton University Orchestra accompanied the American

Repertory Ballet’s premiere performance of a newly-minted "Midsummer

Night’s Dream" ballet, choreographed by Graham Lustig, at the

State Theater, New Brunswick.

In an interview outside picturesque Alexander Hall (especially radiant

with rhododendrons in bloom) before rehearsal was set to begin last

week, Roche smiles as he discusses his directorial style. Due to a

scheduling mixup, Richardson Auditorium was in use, so cast and crew

enjoyed a bucolic outdoor rehearsal. It is a warm and breezy summer-like

evening. Down at the end of the green, the cast is warming up, wiggling

and shaking out the kinks, doing deep breathing exercises punctuated

by occasional laughter.

The performers begin to weave their spell before the audience enters

the auditorium, Roche explains. "There are fairies to greet you

at the door. They run up and down the stage. They’re all over the

place," he says. "You’re in the theater before you’re in the

theater." When you do enter the theater, you may find one of the

mischievous sprites occupying your seat. In this case you’ll have

to ask them to move.

The performance opens with sound of Mendelssohn’s sparkling overture,

written by the German composer in 1826, when he was just 17 years

old. There are no sets to speak of. The orchestra is on stage the

entire time and the play takes place in front of them. "I like

to allow all the wires to show," says Roche, who uses the black-clad

orchestra and Richardson Auditorium’s unique architectural and decorative

features to serve as the play’s rich, atmospheric setting. The director’s

purpose, notes Roche, is "total interchange between actors and

musicians."

The result is a magnetic production. Tommy Dewey as Demetrius, Doug

Schachtel as Lysander, Kate MacKenzie as Helena, and Majel Connery

as Hermia are engaging as Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers.

A common difficulty, even for seasoned Shakespearean actors, is that

often the dialogue tends to sound like a hodgepodge of randomly selected

quotations out of Bartlett’s, like non-sequiturs linked together with

"thees" and "thous." Not so with the Princeton Shakespeare

Company, who are able to weave craft into something close to art,

rarely allowing the seams to show.

Although the cast is a large one, some doubling of parts

was necessary. Senior Adam Friedman plays both Theseus and Oberon

and Mary Bonner Baker plays Hippolyta and Titania. Of course, as required

by the playwright, the actors playing the company of artisans also

play the "rude mechanicals."

The artistic sensibilities of the cast were often a surprise to Roche

throughout the initial rehearsal process. In Act I, Scene 2, there

is a bit of complicated stage business that involves a delicate mixing

of the difficult Shakespearean dialogue with a series of well-timed

comic pratfalls. "The actors worked out a very fast action,"

explains Roche, his eyes widening at the memory, "they came up

with it totally by themselves."

As rehearsals wore on, the only real problem for Roche was certainly

not unexpected. "It is always difficult to get young people to

project their voices. Although we were lucky, I’ll say: there are

four guys who are also in a singing group and are pretty good at it."

"A Midsummer Night’s Dream," one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays,

is written to reflect the love, lust, magic, and dreams commonly associated

with the springtime, the time of year, perhaps, when the dream world

feels most real. And contrary to what the title suggests, the play’s

action takes place, not at midsummer, but somewhere close to May Day,

making this a most suitable time of year to produce it.

And, of course, there are many reasons why these upcoming performances

will be special for actors and audience. The talented cast, Mendelssohn’s

music, Shakespeare’s time-honored play. And there is another reason,

too. As Kate MacKenzie, a member of the Class of 2000, who is busy

preparing for graduation as well as rehearsing her role as Helena,

explains just before rehearsal gets under way: "It is very special

for the seniors, because our parents will be here to see the performance."

It could be one of those monments as fleeting as the rhododendron

blooms — a chance to see the dreams at their height, just before

the dawn of the real world.

— Jack Florek

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Princeton Shakespeare Company,

Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-5000. Student production with the complete

incidental music by Felix Mendelssohn performed by the Princeton University

Orchestra with chorus. $15; $5 students. Thursday and Friday, May

25 and 26, 7:30 p.m.


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