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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 24, 2000. All rights reserved.
Review: Students at the Threshold
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
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
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
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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