Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (George Brown Theatre)

George Brown showcases promising talent on stage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

If you’re in need of some Shakespeare, then you can get your fix in the distillery district this month. The George Brown School of Performing Arts is putting on a double feature of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It at The Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

This is strictly a review of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When I first saw the posting, I naively assumed that it was some sort of mashup, selection of scenes, or drastically cut versions being performed together. This isn’t the case: if you go on a given night you’ll be seeing one or the other, and in my case it was Midsummer.

Overall, this show was enjoyable enough and jam-packed with content. There was a lot going on and its given me a lot to say, but at its core the cast was likeable and the production value was fairly high.

The show is being mounted in the round at the Tank House Theatre, and the blocking is excellently done — this really is “in-the-round” done right and it pulls you into the three intertwined stories: of wayward young lovers, a ragtag theatre troupe, and the fairies that pull these humans under their spells.

The story of the lovers was treated like a hammy spoof on teen dramas, rather than the more serious of Midsummer’s plots. Caroline Bell was exceptionally dweebish and quite funny as Helena. She had some great scenes with Jake Runeckles’ Lysander. Meanwhile, the fairies had a real “punk” vibe to them, with Morgan St. Onge’s raucous Puck opening the show with a high energy song.

Unfortunately, the theatre troupe (called the “mechanicals”) couldn’t help but seem a bit mundane alongside the distinct aesthetics of the other two thirds of the ensemble. This is no fault of the actors, who were still amusing in their own right. Michael Boyce made a hilarious Bottom and the rest of the troupe each had moments to shine. It’s just that the absurdity of the actors seemed lost with every other part of the show hurtling along at full throttle.

To me, there was too much going on in this production. The different plot lines each had some distinguishable direction, but together they lacked cohesion. I noticed very few (if any) cuts to the original text. That can make for a perfectly respectable show that honours its source material, but if you take Midsummer in its entirety you’ll find that it’s already pretty long for a comedy. This is typical for Shakespeare, but in this case the addition of many creative extras with seemingly little intent behind them made the production feel rather gratuitous.

There are songs and dance numbers backed by a full band, vignettes and drawn out fight choreography. The excess doesn’t stop there either. On top of all that, both my guest and I felt that across the board all of the performers were overacting. This is likely a directorial choice that would be funny in a shorter show, but ends up tiring in a long one such as this. Energy levels were at an 11 throughout, which detracted especially from the mechanicals’ “play within a play” because the actors weren’t able to ham it up any more than they already had.

Meanwhile, the fairies had some kind of post-hardcore/dream-pop fusion aesthetic going on. To be fair, this looked fantastic from a costuming perspective, but neither the aesthetic nor the music that accompanied it really felt like it tied into a greater theme or intention. It seems like very few ideas were thrown out in the creative process and the result was a cluttered production that became tedious by the end.

Here’s my dilemma with reviewing this show: as a play it was clearly excessive. However, given that this is being put on by a performing arts program, it certainly succeeds as a showcase that grants opportunities to the talented artists studying at George Brown this year. Did the music feel unnecessary at times? Absolutely. However, the songs gave me the chance to hear some of the cast member’s incredible voices. In particular, I remember Cora Matheson (Oberon/Theseus) singing at the end of the show and being blown away; I later checked the programme to see that she’s trained in classical voice and thought “huh, I’d like to see her in a musical.” That’s kind of the point of this sort of production.

So if the aim is to showcase talent, then I’d say this show is a success in that regard. But if the goal is to mount a tight production of Midsummer with clear direction and themes, then something has to go; whether it’s parts of the text, the dancing, the music, etc.

I think the show misses out by not cutting anything. I wasn’t clear on the overarching intent or theme of this production. Choosing to remove something, whether it’s trimming the text or taking out some of the additional creative work, would help signal to the audience what this show is trying to say.

All in all, this is still a pretty inoffensive production of Midsummer that keeps most of the text and makes plenty of additions on top of that. It’s perfectly watchable, and it and showcases plenty of likeable performers. However, by refusing to compromise and throwing in as many creative ideas as possible, it definitely cheapened the final product.

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Image provided by the company.