A Distinctive Theme For Darko Tresnjak's 'Midsummer Night's Dream'

If you're going to stage Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," dream big.

This is the romantic fantasy in which a magic spell changes lovers' affections, leading to merry chases. A man named Bottom is turned into a braying donkey. A sprite called Puck causes mischief. A wedding is planned. So is a play-within-a-play. Dreamy.

The most famous "Midsummer Night's Dream" of the 20th century is undoubtedly Peter Brook's production for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Not only was it a profound critical success and a major influence on other directors, it toured the world.

In Connecticut, there've been notable productions of "Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Yale Repertory Theatre (in 1975, with Meryl Streep, Carmen de Lavallade and Christopher Lloyd in the cast) at Long Wharf Theater (in 2005, featuring Hartford Stage's longtime Scrooge Bill Raymond as Bottom), and just last summer in New Haven's Edgerton Park from the Elm Shakespeare Company.

Mark Lamos directed it at Hartford Stage in 1988 with flying fairies. Directed by Darko Tresnjak, the "Midsummer Night's Dream" that opens Hartford Stage's 2017-18 season is anchored by two commanding voices: a deep baritone for the gruff supernatural figure Oberon and a sweet musical tone for the fairy queen Titania.

Tresnjak, known for his imaginative thematic stagings of Shakespeare plays, didn't have to hunt far for a distinctive concept. The concept is hunting.

"It's impossible to do a show that's set in no period," Tresnjak asserts in a recent phone interview. "I've seen them try. It doesn't work."

In rereading "A Midsummer Night's Dream," he was struck by a couple of references to hunting, references that connect the two disparate worlds of the play — a palatial estate in Athens and the enchanted world that exists in the outlying woods.

Tresnjak has dressed the nobility (the soon-to-be-wed Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta) in hunting outfits; the "students" (young lovers Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius and Helena) in school uniforms; and the Mechanicals (the comical sextet that stages an hilariously lousy version of "Pyramus and Thisbe") as if they were "the servant class in a show like 'Upstairs Downstairs'."

"I thought I was having a crisis with the set design," Tresnjak recalls, "until I started thinking about gatehouses of the great estates." He uses a gatehouse on a revolving platform as the gateway between the play's two worlds.

Esau Pritchett — who plays both Puck's master Oberon, overlord of the supernatural arboreal realm, and the noble Athenian Duke Theseus — says during a recent phone interview that "Darko is concerned with breaking down the language, making the text clear. Personally, I'm less concerned about what happens conceptually."

"Shakespeare," Pritchett says, "always requires everything you've got. I'm never bored, always challenged." He has played Othello many times, and appeared in such other tragedies as "Anthony an Cleopatra" and "Macbeth," but he's also done "Much Ado About Nothing," "The Comedy of Errors" and (though he barely remembers it, "back at the beginning of my professional career"), "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

When doing Shakespearean comedy, Pritchett says, he's "careful not to play it for laughs. When Shakespeare talks about a comedy, it just means that the stage is not littered with dead bodies. The comedy exists in the relationship between Puck and Oberon. It's not about jokes."

Pritchett's known in Connecticut for his starring role in August Wilson's "Fences" at the Long Wharf Theatre in 2013. With both Shakespeare and Wilson, Pritchett says "the easiest thing for me to call upon is bombast. But I'm always looking for a different choice. Oberon and Titania can both be strict, but it doesn't have to come from a place of anger and rage."

The actress playing Titania and Hippolyta at Hartford Stage, Scarlett Strallen, didn't meet Tresnjak through shared Shakespearean connections. An acclaimed musical theater star in her native England, she played Sibella Hallward for the last 11 months of the Broadway run of Tresnjak's Tony-winning production of "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder."

But Strallen, who's best known for playing Mary Poppins in London and on Broadway, also has some serious Shakespeare cred, including playing Lady Macduff in Kenneth Branagh's production of "Macbeth" in 2014. Early in her career, she performed several Shakespeare plays in London's Regent Park.

"I do have one big song in this show," Strallen says during a phone interview, "but to not have to sing all the time, just do a play, is wonderful."

Like Pritchett, Strallen thinks Shakespeare's comedy should emerge naturally from the situations.

"Titania falling in love with Bottom has to be played with complete truth." She says she "knew I would be playing both Titania and Hippolyta, but I was much more fixated on Titania. Then I realized I get to play two completely different women, who complement each other. One is an ice maiden, while Titania is so expressive she won't shut up."

Strallen says that Alexander Dodge's set design for this "Midsummer Night's Dream" is "unbelievably clever," and that "my Hippolyta wedding dress is magnificent, a showstopper in itself. With Darko, things are always going to be on the stylish side."

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM IS plays through Oct. 8 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m.; with 2 p.m. matinees on Sept. 16, 20, and 30 and Oct. 7; 2 p.m.; and 7:30 p.m. Sunday shows on Sept. 10 and 24. Tickets are $25-$90. 860-527-5151, hartfordstage.org.

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