Kansas City, like many thriving metropolises (is that the correct plural form of that word?), has an annual Shakespeare in the Park to-do that’s kind of a medium-size deal. I have only been three times. I went to see Macbeth last year, and then this year, with the return of the double-performance feature, I saw both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Antony & Cleopatra.
My prior exposure to MND was seeing that horrid movie version that came out around, oh, I don’t know, 2000? 2001? (IMDB says 1999. I was very close.) And then of course I read the play in my undergraduate Shakespeare class – begrudgingly, since my memories of the movie were so negative. (And I’m sure in that class we watched – if not the entire thing, at least some clips from – one of the myriad movie adaptations out there.) Luckily, I enjoyed reading it rather more than watching the movie, but I still didn’t have a positive overall memory of the play.
My expectation for Kansas City’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was thus: I would enjoy it only insomuch as I enjoyed the company I saw it with. To that end, I gathered up some of the best metro company around, in the form of five friends and a baby, and we shared blankets, refreshments, and lots of mirth as we gathered on the lawn for the play.
Before we went, I had flipped through my copy of the well-chewed (thanks to the dog) THE COMPLETE WORKS OF SHAKESPEARE (which, due to its size, caused a friend of mine, upon recently seeing me reading it from a distance, to ask if it was a science or medical textbook). I wanted to skim through my margin notes on this particular play, just to give myself a quick reminder of the basic plot. My refresher course went like this: Play inside a play. Pyramus & Thisbe. Some forest confusion involving ribald fairies and nymphs and unrequited love and…an ass? There’s a particularly obnoxious mischief maker named Puck. Then back to the castle for the rest of the frame play, happy ending, lots of laughter and delighted tears. Whether one’s previous experiences with a single play are positive or negative, that sort of bare-bones recap isn’t going to do much to persuade one’s expectations in either direction.
Even so, sharing the company of good friends really can add a glossy sheen to any occasion. So, given my companions, the outdoors, and the refreshments, I was already pleased with the outcome of the event within half an hour of having left my house. And then the best part of the whole evening happened: The play began. I witnessed, hands down, the best adaptation and performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream I have ever had the opportunity to see. The speech was easy to follow, the story line a cinch to pick up. Things flowed along smoothly, and the opportunities to laugh were frequent and numerous.
The actor I was most impressed with was the one who played Puck, coincidentally. He flew, jumped, somersaulted, and acrobatted all over the stage, and he perfected this sycophantic, servile facial expression that he adopted whenever he spoke to Oberon, his master. In fact, in these interactions with Oberon, the expression on Puck’s face consistently reminded me of Ed the Hyena from The Lion King. And, somehow, this was just fitting.
The entire performance was laced with an air of merriment that the actors could not have faked. It was raw and contagious, and of course it was catalyzed early in the first act by the sole canine thespian breaking free from its leash and bolting from the stage (clearly not part of the script, but the cast handled it and the audience’s reactive laughter and resultant momentary distraction well). The actors got a standing ovation at the end, and they deserved it. The energy between the audience and the stage was palpable, and it was a good night to be at the theater (in the park). And, no offense to my awesome friends, but I rather think I would’ve enjoyed the play whether they’d been there or not!
I can’t say the same for Antony and Cleopatra, though. My prior exposure to A&C before a couple of weeks ago was zero. Before I went to see the Kansas City version, I once again used THE COMPLETE WORKS OF SHAKESPEARE to read the whole play so I could get a head start on following it live. As I read, I didn’t think I disliked it, although Act IV does get tedious. So, I don’t know if it’s this particular acting company’s approach to tragedies or if I truly don’t love Antony & Cleopatra as a piece of literature/art in and of itself, but I was not moved by this performance. That night, it was almost exclusively the friends I was with who helped me immensely enjoy the night, rather than the acting. I got bored before intermission (whereas I was genuinely surprised at MND when it was time for the fifteen-minute break).
The reason I say it could be the troupe’s interpretation of tragedies is that I felt the same way about Macbeth last year, and normally I appreciate and enjoy Macbeth. They took a lot of sexual liberties with the Macbeth adaptation last year, even going as far as to make us all gasp in shock when Lady Macbeth jumped Macbeth in the middle of the stage, and they both went crashing down to the floor; then proceeded to hump for several awkward seconds. Thinking this might be an impromptu ad-lib added as an especial treat for our performance only, I checked around with other friends who saw the play on different nights, and they gave the same report. For me, this bold addition cheapened and perverted (pardon the pun) the core of Shakespeare’s message, as if they were implying that his writing wasn’t good enough to stand on its own merit, or else that the audience wasn’t elite intelligentsia enough, and they must add these bawdy interludes to keep us from nodding off. (Now I’m not only insulted on Shakespeare’s behalf; I’m enraged on my own!)
Back to Antony & Cleopatra. Setting aside the fact that the titular characters were played by the same lead actors who so offended me in Macbeth, one thing that could let this acting company off the hook is to consider the possibility that I just don’t love this particular play. And that is indeed possible. After all, the story centers around a middle-aged couple who act with less sense than the adolescent Romeo & Juliet (don’t even get me started on them). And there’s a secondary story featuring four men who are essentially in a machismo contest, all trying to conquer the world and all unable to swallow their pride long enough to figure out how to share the pieces of that world. To be frank, it’s embarrassing to watch such a juvenile plot be played out amongst characters who are supposed to be grown adults.
It’s embarrassing fictionally and historically speaking. Where, after all, would Shakespeare get the idea for such a silly story? Well, from real life, unfortunately. The leaders of Ancient Rome were a lot of good things, but I don’t think mature, play well with others, and morally sensible were on the list. The only welcome bits of this play were the blunt sexual innuendos (for their comic relief factor and shock value) and the beginning of all the deaths (since that meant the play was nearing its end).
Kansas City’s Shakespeare in the Park is a cultural touchstone that should be experienced, I’ll warrant. But this year, if you’ve only got time to get to one of the plays, make sure it’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Whatever your feelings are about the theater, or parks, or various Shakespeare plays, one thing cannot be denied: Will was brilliant, and exposure to his work can only make us better people.