Bottompost 1: The Play of My Life

Titania and Bottom

“I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was”

Sometime in 1970, my dad took me to see a play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where he worked at the time. I’m not sure what my attitude was before I went. I was likely excited to do something just with him, and that it was at the Big Place Where He Worked probably made it more special. The play was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company and directed by Peter Brook. We weren’t a family that sat around reading Shakespeare after dinner. At the time, we were barely a family at all: my parents had been separated for five years and I was an only child. And though I was steeped in the world of theaters and dancers, backstage wings and dressing rooms, I was not a “theatre brat” by any stretch. So I didn’t arrive at B.A.M. primed for anything. And maybe that’s the best way to walk into a performance: with the wide eyes of a child and unburdened by expectations.

The lovers asleep in the Brook production

The play had a profound effect on me. I remember laughing at things I didn’t really understand, but which reached my funny bone anyway. I remember being transfixed by magic, and enchanted by actors floating in the air and huge pink feathers. I remember begging him to go back and see it again. Years later, he bought me my first collected works: a slender hard cover, Oxford Press edition with super-thin pages. He inscribed it “Remember A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1970 – It can always be that way!”

Flash forward to the summer of 1980. I am in the throes of adolescence, about to be a senior in high school and smitten by the theater. At the suggestion of my drama teacher, I apply and am accepted to the National High School Institute at Northwestern University outside Chicago. It’s a summer-school program to theatre geeks. After some initial panic, I discover I am in heaven, surrounded by cool theatre geeks from all over the country and being taught by grown-up theatre geeks. These are adults who, rather then try to dissuade me from thinking about the theatre as something I could do with my life, actually encourage me. Each student that summer performs in one of six Final Productions, directed by faculty. It’s  a big deal that year, because it turns out we are the first people to perform in Northwestern’s new theaters. My director was the extraordinary Mary Poole, and she shocked me by casting me not as Puck, but as Oberon and Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Calista Flockhart as Hermia

I remember I had to wear almost nothing – a kind of tight mini skirt with dance belt underneath and big blue jewel that hovered just beneath my belly button. I freaked and Mary relented. They designed a shimmering blue cape for me. I kept that cape for many years. On stage I said:

 

 

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine”

and

“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact”

and

“With this field-dew consecrate,
Every fairy take his gait;
And each several chamber bless,
Through this palace, with sweet peace;
And the owner of it blest
Ever shall in safety rest.
Trip away; make no stay;
Meet me all by break of day.”

And it changed me.

Christopher Walken as Lysander

Flash forward three years, and I’m a Yale College sophomore, playing Lysander in a Commencement production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Commencement shows at Yale are productions rehearsed and presented in the ten days between the end of exams and Commencement weekend. They are proof that there is no force as mighty as the collective energies of young people. They are evidence of the scene from the movie Shakespeare In Love, when a frantic Mr. Fennyman approaches Mr. Henslowe backstage at the Globe:

Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, let me explain the natural state of the theatre: it is a series of insurmountable obstacles on the road to certain ruin.

Fennyman: But what happens?

Henslowe: Strangely enough, it all turns out all right in the end.

Fennyman: How?

Henslowe: No one knows. It’s a mystery.

Geoffrey Rush as Philip Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love

I remember cramming the lines and feeling sure there was no way any of us would know them once we had an audience seated. But we did, and suddenly, there I was, tickling funny bones with the same jokes that had tickled me in Brooklyn thirteen years before. Jokes that Mr. Henslowe had told, which had tickled the groundlings on a hot day in Southwark, 400 years before that. We performed in Dwight Hall Chapel, sweating buckets, and dodging the bats which were drawn to the bugs swirling around the lighting instruments. Our Demetrius,  convinced the bats were after him, took it upon himself to improvise lines about “rarermice”. I learned then never to attempt improvisation with Mr. Shakespeare.

Flash forward 10 and 20 years, and there I am with a bunch of students, who are learning the lovers’ scene in the woods, or the opening in Athens, and me in front, leading, guiding, teaching as best I can, a companion to Will and his play. Like Rilke and Rickie Lee, this play has followed me through my life so consistently that it is a part of my life. If there is a play that is somehow my play, even though I didn’t write it and it belongs to all of us, then it is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And now, having played roles in the the other two “communities of characters” in the play – the lovers and the fairies – at last I join the mechanicals as Bottom, opening in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Lantern Theater March 10th.

Sitting around the table yesterday with the ASTONISHING CAST at our first read-through, I was again amazed at the freshness of the play. How can it still be so funny? I know it inside and out, and I was still cracking up over and over. Then I get it again: it’s the actors, silly. Shakespeare was an actor and wrote for actors – actors he knew intimately and loved – and so whenever actors put those words in their mouths, they sing. I love its symmetrical construction: a long, surreal mid-section bracketed by two classical scenes in Athens. I love how the dream trickles into the end of the play, when everyone is supposed to be “awake”.

Wacky futuristic production still of "Pyramus & Thisby" being performed

I have always felt it’s Shakespeare’s most childlike play (with the possible exception of The Comedy of Errors), and this is why some people don’t like it so much. It lacks some of the wit and precision of Twelfth Night, or the drama of Much Ado, or the elegance of As You Like It. There is no cross dressing, no astonishing secrets revealed, and there is all that fairy magic – much more supernatural business than any other comedy. But these are reasons why I love it. If feels simple and essential to me, dealing with basics: sex and desire, jealously, the threat of death and abandonment and the fear of the unknown. But the childlike quality is contained most in the story of Peter Quince and his blue-collar acting troupe.

I’m tired, and there’s so much more to say. But I have to put my girl Ella to bed. Just think: she will be how old I was when in front of Peter Brook’s production, when she sees me left alone in the woods, transformed into an ass, and made love to by the Queen of the Fairies.

Bottom discovers Titania in Brook's production