Bard's saucy A Midsummer Night’s Dream defies logic

Director Dean Paul Gibson recalled some rehearsals in which everyone collapsed with laughter. Their collaborative approach also left room for happy mistakes. “Well", he said, "I never intended that to happen”. 

Bard on the Beach - Fairies in 2014 Dream kick it up a notch
Bard’s silver anniversary Dream, “a most rare vision”. Photos courtesy: David Blue

Sensing a need to slap people to their senses, author/atheist Douglas Adams asked,

“Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

Sounds reasonable. But for me, I couldn’t think of a better place to spend the solstice than attending this summer’s silver anniversary edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There, Bard on the Beach took direct aim at logic and reason to prove we do indeed need to believe the garden’s bottom has fairies. And here’s why.

“The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact”

Artistic Director Christopher Gaze took my call as he cycled into the office, and I had to ask him why the traditional gossamer-winged faeries usually associated with Dream where replaced with much edgier sexed-up ones. He replied simply, “I was never a purist”, adding, “Shakespeare was quite bawdy so where he goes, we went too”.

And the production is more than just sexier; it has an air of spontaneity that’s surprising for such a venerable old play. As I discovered, Chris and Director Dean Paul Gibson had methodically stripped away 400 years of Puritan restraint and sentimental accretions to re-imagine Dream more as the bard himself might have intended had he been around today.

Kyle Rideout returns as Puck in Bard on the Beach's A Midsummer Night's Dream

Not your average gossamer-winged fairies. Kyle Rideout returns as Puck

“The course of true love never did run smooth”

Apart from the neutral stage set, (which must do double duty for The Tempest) the costumes gave the impression that the actors ad been turned wild in a costume house. Dean described the costume choices as “a collision of styles, in which anything can happen”. He worked with costume designer Mara Gottler drawing from Victorian style (hence the steam punk look), Japanese Harajuku style (named for Tokyo’s outlandish fashion district), and contemporary North American pop culture. The music, ranging from Felix Mendelssohn to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to Eurhythmics, had a similar impulsiveness.

Comparison of Dream costumes - 2006 to 2014

Costumes have grown up with the actors. Compare the 2006 production (left) with 2014 (right).

Dean assured me the feel of spontaneity is in effect “planned and intentional”, although the collaborative way he works with his actors is more exploratory. “In 2006, I emphasized that this is a dream and in a dream anything can happen”. Then he added to emphasize the inherent absurdity of Dream, “This play is about a fairy falling in love with a donkey!”

Chris also spoke of “breaking through the fourth wall” letting the action drift out into the audience and indeed include the audience. Losing the fourth wall made sense. They’d already removed the back wall to replace it with Vancouver’s signature mountains, ocean, skyline, and inevitable sunset (when I attended, two bicycles trailing balloons rolled by in full view of the audience, and distant solstice drummers could be heard, but neither distracted nor upstaged the performance).

“We will meet; and there we may rehearse most obscenely and courageously”

“Actors bring their own particular thing to the table”, Dean said explaining his collaborative approach with the actors, “As a director, I can only hope to curate. So I give them freedom to explore their characters, and it’s up to me to edit as necessary. It makes my job easier if I can work with artists as collaborator.”

Scott Bellis - Bottom

Nick Bottom the weaver (Scott Bellis) shows fellow "Mechanicals" Snug (Allan Zinyk) and Flute (Haig Sutherland) how to act and, ultimately, how to make an ass of oneself.

Spontaneity is part of the illusion of Dream. "Everything’s planned and tested", Dean pointed out, “Dream was hatched with a lot of care and a lot of reverence”. But this approach does leave room for happy mistakes. “I have a rule that if I’m working with someone who has a good clown inside, I don’t want to kill that”. He recalled some rehearsals in which everyone had collapsed with laughter adding, “Well, I never intended that to happen”.

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