Shaunette Wilson as Puck

Feeling Puckish

You know things are bad when the mythical mischief-maker and riddle-speaker Puck has had enough of mischief and riddles. Draped in skins, bearing ritualistic markings and skewed horns, the wily sprite, crouched on a shelf of stone in deep dark forest, delivers an honest, heartfelt lament for nature’s impending twilight—and, consequently, her own.

Yes, Puck is a ‘she’ in this tale, but that’s the least of the departures from canon for Yale Summer Cabaret’s Midsummer, a fresh and remarkably clever riff on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Director and co-adapter Sara Holdren, who’s also the overarching artistic director for Summer Cabaret’s 2015 season, notes that Midsummer is structured like a Russian doll, taking Dream’s various side-by-side storylines and layering them, altered as desired, into a single stream. Meantime, Holdren says, material from some 90% of The Bard’s 37 recognized plays has been incorporated into this play’s script.

The outcome is a presentation that echoes important aspects of Dream but also veers significantly afield, while still feeling like a genuine slice of the oeuvre. “I love Shakespeare. I love these works that are considered eternal and classical. On the other hand,” Holdren says, confessing her own Puckish streak, “I like messing with them.”

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Especially A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “To me it’s a play that has this really wonderful bone structure but then often receives really unsuccessful plastic surgery,” she says, laughing. “It’s got beautiful, funny, vibrant things about it and yet you often see productions of it that seem very cute and very safe… The idea of taking it and warping it and seeing what else was in there was really exciting.”

Summer Cabaret’s warping kicks in right from the start. Whereas Dream opens in a nobleman’s court, with Athenian aristocrats trying to weather a messy love triangle in their midst, Midsummer opens in the forest with that searing, big-picture monologue from Puck (played by Shaunette Renée Wilson), a scene that’s nowhere to be found in the primary source material.

That’s because Midsummer, which ends its run on June 21, sets the stakes much higher than its forebear. Midsummer’s natural world is in critical condition. The spirits that draw vitality from it, Puck included, have almost completely disappeared, and it has to do with mankind’s loss of the wonderment and imagination it once devoted to such things. It’s a fantastical parallel to a very real causal phenomenon in our non-fiction world—where mankind’s everyday actions and habits cripple and destroy unseen wildernesses and creatures, as if without a care.

Midsummer is very serious stuff—for the first five minutes or so. After Puck’s monologue, the mood lightens considerably, as a group of co-workers, prompted by an intriguing flyer pinned up near their workplace water cooler, straggle onto set. They’ve gathered in the forest at the behest of pinner Peter Quince (Niall Powderly), who’s written an original play and is desperate for actors to help stage it. With more help than he’d like from a respondent named Bottom (Andrej Visky)—an eccentrically enthusiastic comic foil to Quince’s increasingly impatient straight-man—parts are soon assigned and a bumbling rehearsal begins.

Watching Summer Cabaret’s well-practiced actors play characters who can’t act is a heady treat. Watching these actors’ characters then become the characters they’d been trying to play—an act of magic courtesy of Puck, who casts the spell in an effort to inject a measure of imagination into the forest—is truly remarkable. Where once there was believably unbelievable bumbling, there’s eloquence, feeling, conviction.

As tends to be the case, things don’t quite proceed as Puck hopes. It’s her nature to break things, not put them back together. Puck is “the creative destroyer,” Holdren says, and you know what? That’s a pretty good description of what’s happening over at Yale Cabaret for the next 10 days.

Midsummer presented by Yale Summer Cabaret
217 Park St, New Haven (map)
Most evenings through June 21
(203) 432-1566

Written by Dan Mims. Photographed by Andrea Berman.

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