By Jeremy Geragotelis ‘16
I love the theater because it forces us to be good. To sit down, shut the fuck up, and behave. The way it does that? Through teaching. Plays aren’t like other visual art forms in that you, as the viewer, cannot negotiate your relationship to the work. Plays require that you learn their language and their rules. They are uncompromising in that way, but the payoff is great.
I’ll give you an example. Dust off that copy of Streetcar you haven’t opened up since high school. What was up with all that talk about light and the paper lantern? Remember: Stanley rips down the lantern at the beginning of the play. And guess what happens when he attacks and rapes Blanche towards the end? Williams writes in his stage directions: “Lurid reflections appear on the wall around Blanche. The shadows are of a grotesque and menacing form.” Stanley is the bare light-bulb that he reveals when he rips down the paper lantern in a fit of rage at the top of the drama. The play teaches us a way to understand light so that it means more than what it means. Take that element out of the play and...well...you don’t really have a play.
I think we can call this ‘teaching’ that a play does a moral thing. We leave the theater understanding something with a sense of newness. The theater opens space for reflection, for a shift in our perspectives. And that’s good because it keeps our brains moving. Just think of theater like an update on your phone or computer. You have to sit and do nothing for a couple hours, but then you’re back running better than ever.
Just this past weekend, we as a campus got our software update from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by our very own Jean Randich. Now what I find so compelling about this play is that it does all that normal stuff that plays do (teaching us how to see, which makes us understand things in a new ways, which is good because we reflect), but then you put a healthy dollop of magic on top of that. The idea of magic is that it’s something disproportional to our reality; we need a language and rules built around it in order to understand it. And always, you need to learn what that magical language and those magical rules are. Sound familiar? This is all to say that theater and magic are the same thing. And when they happen together and in the same space, as they did this weekend, you can bet this guy goes cuckoo for cocoa puffs!
What’s also really cool about Shakespeare’s comedy is that all the magic in it revolves around the issue of love. I caught up with actor Matt Kirby last week to chat with him about how tech week was going. When I asked him if he was experiencing love in a new way after learning the theatrical and magical laws of Midsummer, he had this to say: “It’s very freeing to be playing a character who is able to express himself in such emotional depth and honesty. Because there’s no subtext in Shakespeare - it’s on the page. The characters mean what they say and they are who they say they are. And that’s really wonderful...because so much of the way we experience love, especially in a modern context, is all about subtext. It’s all about that look someone gave you, or interpreting a feeling. But if you have fourteen lines of beautiful poetry to express the same feeling, it’s freeing.”
Fourteen lines of beautiful poetry that build rules and structures for us as audience members to understand the magic of love in a new way.
And didn’t we ever. With Jean Randich at the helm, directing a rhythmically-attuned cast of actors, we saw the overt sexiness of Shakespeare’s comedic world. God damn it, the whole thing was like one long kinky edging session. Randich made us see that it is the pressure in wanting something you can’t have that really moves this play along. I admired the cohesion of this thematic note; everything fed into Randich’s concept, proving a talented and fresh reading of this perhaps overdone play. A fairy begins the whole experience biking furiously to move a steampunk outfitted moon to the center of the sky; a gesture that expended too much energy and took too long (in the best possible way). And let’s talk about the scene that closes off the first act, where the four lovers, confused by Oberon’s magic, bicker and blame one another in the hopes of deciphering their jumbled romance. The action flies about the stage, stretching our eye across the entire playground set (brilliantly designed by Jiyoun Chang). I spoke with a few friends of mine following the performance and they made comments about not being able to really settle into that scene in particular. But that’s the point, right? Its resolution is withheld from us; we don’t experience the satisfaction of seeing it go much of anywhere. We don’t know where to look, we don’t know what narrative to follow, we don’t know how to make meaning because Shakespeare and Randich are trying to get us to understand that it’s in the wanting of those things that we’ll actually find the beef of the play. It takes an actor with great dexterity to communicate that conceit. All did remarkable work with Emma Welch leading the way with such effortless emotional movements.
But what I found most poignant about this production of Midsummer is the moment of stillness that Randich saves for the finale. Tipping her hat to Wagner, the busyness of the play totally falls away and the entire cast simply turns to us and sings. We get a lovely closing hymn, written by musical wizard Singer Morra, that is perhaps meant to mirror post-coital bliss in all its simplicity and wonderment. The play radiates past its action, proving that it did it’s job in getting us all to think about love with bright and optimistic newness. Magical, no?
Bravo to everyone involved in this exceptional production. Thank you for reminding us, the Bennington Community, to laugh at our follies - a lesson I was desperately needing this weekend. And thank you for taking on the not small task of adopting the magic of this play so fully. As long as there is theater like this, I will be reminded that the learning never needs to end, nor should it ever end.