Early last week, “This American Life” host Ira Glass took to his Twitter account following a production of “King Lear” to announce to the world that “Shakespeare sucks,” calling the Bard “not relatable” and “unemotional.” Glass immediately suffered the slings and arrows of outraged English majors everywhere, and although he later retracted his comments, the Twitterverse seemed to be in agreement that he doth protest too much.
Jeff Sanders, who is directing a production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that premieres tonight at Interplayers Theatre, takes particular umbrage with Glass’ criticism, as he believes the Bard’s legacy is so indelible precisely because it’s relatable.
“I’ve had more life experiences since I last tackled this play,” said Sanders, who has directed it twice before. “So when I came back to it, there’s much more that I can bring to it. I think that’s the beautiful thing about Shakespeare – the more you grow in your life, you take that with you, and that becomes the raw material you tackle the play with.”
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is arguably Shakespeare’s most famous comedy, adapted and repurposed countless times since it was first performed in the late 16th century. Like much of Shakespeare’s lighter works, it coexists in reality and a fantasy world, and it features one of the most famous uses of his dependable play-within-a-play device.
The plot is typical Shakespeare farce, concerning four very different groups of characters – the court of the Duke of Athens, an interconnected group of young lovers, a kingdom of fairies in the nearby woods and an inexperienced troupe of actors – and the various romantic foibles that intertwine them.
“It’s a story in which these four worlds collide and overlap,” Sanders said, “and we witness the follies of young love and a more mature love when jealousy is introduced.”
As events in the real world are mirrored in the fairy world, and as the love lives of the characters grow thornier, Shakespeare uses the guise of a frothy romantic comedy to explore the possibility of realms beyond universe and how we relate to such an abstract and complex concept.
“Shakespeare takes that big idea and he cloaks it in this fun fantasy fairy world,” Sanders said. “It always makes me think of Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, with God and man and the two fingers trying to touch. This play is like that space between the two fingers, and we get to actually explore that in a fun, magical way. … At the end of it, you have this transformative experience dealing with the nature of God and man and spirituality in ways that are surprising.”
This particular production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a co-production between Interplayers and the theater program at Eastern Washington University, where Sanders teaches, and he says it’s a perfect introduction to anyone unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s work.
“It’s truly the gateway drug of Shakespeare,” he said. “If you walk away from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ saying, ‘I had an amazing experience at this play,’ maybe you’d be willing to go see ‘Othello’ or ‘Twelfth Night.’ One can absolutely lead to the next.”
And although there are weightier themes at work in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Sanders said he’s careful to remain steadfast to the play’s whimsical spirit.
“I try to make my production quick, to make it limber, fun and exciting,” he said. “I would be shocked if people were bored. Hopefully it will bring out the child in all of us a little bit. It’s one of those indestructible pieces, and unless you really sink that ship, it’s a fireproof kind of comedy.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.