Very Tragical Mirth

This was a real conversation.

Them: So, what’s Elements doing next?
Me: Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Them: (brightly) Oh, I love that one! With the fairies, right?
Me: (suspiciously) Yes…
Them: (eagerly) It’s really funny, right?
Me: (beginning to be put off) Well, not really.
Them: (gleefully) But it has those doofy guys in it who try to do that play, right? What are they called…
Me: The Mechanicals.
Them: Yes! And they’re really stupid and it’s so hilarious, right? And the little fairies flitting all around, and the lovers running around in the woods —
Me: (irritated) Well, I wouldn’t call The Mechanicals stupid or hilarious…
Them: (almost patronizing, in an ignorant way) But the whole thing is a big joke isn’t it?
Me: (barely able to restrain myself) No! No, it is not a joke at all!

The conversation continued, but I’ll stop there.

Let’s just say that the strength of my feelings about this play, which is regarded by many as one giant lark, really took me by surprise. Yes, of course people remember the humor and the magic and that’s fine. But perhaps what they don’t realize is that for every character in this play, the stakes are high — life and death, in fact — and there is danger on every page.

We put “Dream” on its feet for the first time yesterday. And, as always happens with Master Shakespeare, I saw and heard things in the story that I’d never seen or heard before.

I’ll admit, a cursory glance of the play reveals a bunch of ridiculous people who are either planning weddings, fighting with their parents, struggling to speak English, engaged in tangled teenage love triangles, and – yes – fairies arguing and flitting through the forest playing tricks on humans and each other with love potions and donkey heads.

But when you break it down a little, it’s a whole lot more violent than that.
• Right off the bat, Theseus reveals he has won his new bride, Hippolyta (who is, by-the-way, an Amazon — yes, the ones who cut off a breast in order to better use a bow and arrow) by violence and bloodshed.
• Egeus (Egea in our production) basically asks for permission to kill her daughter, if she refuses to marry the right guy, who (you find out later in the woods) really is not a nice guy at all.
• When the Mechanicals express a certain amount of fear for their lives if they scare the ladies by roaring too loudly during their play, they actually do fear for their lives.
• Those lovers running around in the woods — well, just remember the intensity of your own feelings and actions as a teenager in love, and you get the seriousness of their situation.
• And those cute little fairies? Not only have they enticed humans and each other to infidelity, murder, and other crimes, but the weather, the seasons, and all the elements are all out-of-control off-balance because of them — and some of them don’t seem to mind that one bit.

Don’t get me wrong — there will be a lot of laughter in this production of “Dream.” But I believe the reason “Dream” works as a play is because for every single character it is deadly serious. They all face down the dangers that threaten them, and they all emerge victorious. Miraculously, bizarrely, dreamily….

I believe that’s also why it’s a true comedy — very tragical mirth, if you will — and reduces people (myself included) to tears and laughter every time.

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