by Rose Brennan & Anna Woods, A&E Editor & Staff Writer
In what became the group’s eighth consecutive annual performance at Manhattan College, the American Shakespeare Center (ASC), a touring acting troupe from Staunton, Va., brought Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to life in Smith Auditorium on Friday, Oct. 19.
The ASC first came to Manhattan College in 2012 and performed “Twelfth Night.” Since then, they have returned every year and have become a mainstay of the college’s fall semester.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” marks the first time in recent history the ASC has performed a comedy at the college. Their three previous productions include “The Winter’s Tale” (2018), “MacBeth” (2017) and “Romeo and Juliet” (2016). But according to Brian Chalk, associate professor of English and a key player in the ASC’s continued performances at the college, the decision to do a comedy might be well-informed.
“I think if there [were] one play that could potentially convert someone not interested in Shakespeare to become interested in Shakespeare, it’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.,’ Chalk said.
Chalk’s tie to the ASC began when he was an undergraduate and was taught by a professor named Rob Cohen. Cohen was also instrumental in co-founding the Black Friar’s Theater, the home theater of the ASC. The Black Friar’s Theater is the only replica of Shakespeare’s indoor theater in the world.
Once Chalk became a professor at MC, he began “scheming” to bring the ASC to the Bronx.
And bring them he did.
To Chalk, thought “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was written hundreds of years ago, many of its main themes have salience to a contemporary audience.
“It … has fairies, it has young love, it has a man whose head is converted into a donkey’s head. It works on the level of spectacle, it works as a brilliant piece of comedy, and if you press on it, you’ll find, as you would anywhere with Shakespeare, [these] fathomless levels of depth, having to do with human relationships and why people get married and whether transformation is possible,” he said.
Chalk noted the importance of women in Shakespeare’s comedies, particularly in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as absolutely pivotal to its plot. Furthermore, he felt the presence of strong women could especially resonate with a contemporary audience.
“It’s always worthwhile to locate the smartest character in a Shakespeare play, and in a comedy, it’s always the women,” he said. “The women are always smarter and deeper. To my mind, the most extraordinary character in the play is Titania, the queen of the fairies. So in that sense, watching a strong woman navigate through a patriarchal context is exhilarating, especially in a comedic setting.”
And clearly, Chalk was right about “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”’s contemporary appeal, if the audience standing in the back of the production and the standing ovation at its end were any indicator.
A cornerstone of the ASC is replicating the Shakespearean condition to the best of its ability. Prior to when a show would be staged in Shakespeare’s time, contemporary music would be played by a variety of performers. Thus, before the show and during intermission, the actors remain onstage and perform contemporary tunes.
Another key aspect of replicating the Shakespearean condition is the lack of lighting cues. Obviously, electricity was not invented in Shakespeare’s time, and plays would be performed outside, so the ASC keeps the lights on during their performances. This condition has sparked one of their humorous mottos, “We do it with the lights on!”
One person in attendance at Friday’s performance was Deirdre O’Leary Cunningham, Ph.D., associate professor of English. Although O’Leary is a fan of Shakespeare’s darker comedies, she still loves “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and was impressed by the performance.
“Oh I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s great. I think it’s the perfect comedy of Shakespeare’s to do in Smith Auditorium. I think that the themes of the play, the disruptive nature of it, the kind of madcap nature of the story plays really well anywhere but especially at a college,” said O’Leary
O’Leary’s sentiments were not alone as she was accompanied by her 12-year-old daughter and her best friend who also enjoyed it.
“I brought my 12-year-old daughter and her best friend and they have not read the play and they did not know anything really about it and they are following it. And that’s what it’s all about,” she said.
The play was popular among the students in attendance as well. Matthew Blackwood, who also served as an usher, noted some particular strengths of the show during intermission.
“Their comedic timing is really good. I love their costumes. And I love all the music!” he said.
Prior to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Blackwood had never seen an ASC performance at the college. But after attending the play on Friday, he swore to return next year.
For Chalk, it is extremely important to continue to bring the ASC to the college each year, largely because of the profound effect the arts can have, particularly young people.
“People think through different parts of their lives via the arts, refracted through … powerful experiences they’ve had with art. I think ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ can be a really wonderful instance of that,” Chalk said.