When Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" first printed in 1600, it was already a hit; the title page noted that it had been "sundry times publickely acted" before then. After a 1662 performance, Samuel Pepys described it in his diary as "the most insipid, ridiculous play that ever I saw." But that's a minority opinion: Shakespeare's original is still a favorite, and has inspired any number of romantic comedies in which people are "ill met by moonlight" and tangled relationships are untangled by magical means, preferably under a full moon.
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" returns to Rochester this week as the summer presentation by the Rochester Shakespeare Players. The production starts Saturday, July 5, in Highland Park Bowl, and runs for 11 performances through Saturday, July 19 — each night, except for Monday and Thursday. Admission is free and all performances are at 8 p.m.
To describe the plot of the play as simply as possible: three very different groups of people intersect in the woods by moonlight. Two of the groups are mortals — two young couples whose devotion undergoes some testing; and a group of "rude mechanicals" (that is, working-class blokes) who decide to put on a play in the woods. Observing and influencing their behavior are the fairies and their feuding king and queen, Oberon and Titania. During a lively night, the characters' stories intertwine, often romantically, until all of them come together at the end for a happy ending — and a wedding.
Though it's more than five centuries old, director Luane Davis Haggerty finds "A Midsummer Night's Dream" still "very relatable in its depiction of the different stages of love and its complications. Shakespeare is also comparing love to magic — the feeling you get when you meet someone who takes your breath away — and I don't think there's anyone who can't relate to that."
Haggerty describes this "Midsummer Night's Dream" production as "history-making." A senior lecturer in the theater department at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Haggerty is directing the play with a double cast of hearing and deaf actors — 33 people in all. Each role is played by a voicing actor, who has a signing (American Sign Language) actor assigned to him or her. So there are two languages in use onstage simultaneously: Shakespeare's, and American Sign Language.
The fairy characters communicate in sign language, because they cannot speak to the human characters. But they do sign to one another what it is that the humans are saying. Among themselves, the fairies sign to each other, and voiced actors reenact what the fairies are thinking and signing for the audience.
For obvious reasons, signing actors must face forward at all times, so the voicing actors will be moving all over the stage, interpreting the fairy characters' thoughts and lines. This approach, says Haggerty, makes for complicated rehearsals, but it also transforms the play into "a very physical theater piece. It really pulls it off the page and onto the stage."
Haggerty calls this hearing-deaf double-casting "history-making," and according to Shakespeare Players president Peter Scribner, no Shakespeare company in North America has ever attempted it before. Professional theaters would find the costs of hiring two casts prohibitively expensive; a volunteering community theater group like the Shakespeare Players can attempt it.
Even more to the point, Rochester has a great resource in the theater department of NTID, whose productions have been nationally recognized for their imagination and excellence. The set and lighting designers for "A Midsummer Night's Dream" are both deaf, and this Highland Park production gives many talented deaf actors a rare chance to perform outside NTID productions.
"Most local companies simply don't use deaf actors," Haggerty says. "Of all the different productions that have taken place in Highland Park Bowl since it opened, we think this is the first to use deaf actors."
With its trees, glades, and a goodly complement of fireflies, Highland Park is a natural (no pun intended) setting for the Shakespeare Players' 18th free summer Shakespeare production. "It's perfect for 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,'" Haggerty says. "We'll have actors coming and going in and out of the audience. We'll use the whole environment — at least until it gets dark."
To get an idea of how the hearing-deaf double casting will work, visit Rochestercommunityplayers.org for videos of the company's rehearsals.