In Shakespeare’s day, fairies were not Disney’s pixies and flower sprites. Will o’ the
wisps waited in the night to lead travelers astray, elves kidnapped infants from their cradles and replaced them with changelings, kelpies lurked by lakesides, ghosts haunted lonely graves, and quixotic brownies could either do your housework or drive you mad with their tricks—depending on their mood. The “Fair Folk” and “Good Neighbors,” as they were often called, had their own laws and morality—they were not necessarily virtuous or evil by human reckoning.
But they were perilous.
Although Summer Shakespeare’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be taking place in the present day, director Ron Parker has decided that he is not modernizing the fairies. He feels strongly that the Midsummer fairies are outside of time—they are the same in our time as they were in the Renaissance and the Victorian period. However, Parker is not portraying the characters in the same way he has in productions past:
“I’ve always played Oberon and Titania very regal and stiff (on a stage, you can do that), with very restrictive costumes that kept posture very straight. They were the nobility of the forest. They would walk around restricted by what they were wearing. It kind of gave them a powerful, formidable bearing.
You can’t do that in the woods, there’s no way you can walk that way, you’ll fall over—we tried it! So I had to look at those characters differently. If they live in the woods—if this is their home, if they walk over rivers and across stones and under branches—they would have to be a lot more agile and elemental than I’ve ever played them.
I had the actors try it: I told them to come in connected to the earth, to feel free to swing around a tree trunk, or crouch down or make themselves the ‘masters of the forest.’ That gave me a whole new view of them. All of the sudden they were much more vital and energetic—still powerful, but in a whole different way.”
In this production, since it is in the woods, the fairies can be intimately connected to their natural environment—both in how they are dressed and in how they move. Camouflaging costumes in the dark will allow the actors to imitate what the Elizabethans always believed about the fairies: that they were always present, but not always visible.
The most popular of the fairy characters in Midsummer is, of course, Puck. The feisty trickster is the henchman of the fairy king, and the cause of many of the antics that take place in the woods. Leah Dreyer (18) portrays Puck, who she calls Oberon’s hitman: “He is very mischievous and finds joy in causing trouble,” she says, “he is the thread that weaves together the three stories of Midsummer.”
Shakespeare didn’t invent the character, though. Puck would have been well-known to the British audience of the Renaissance, since he has his origins in Celtic legends. “He comes from various European myths and folktales” Leah says, “he was a forest sprite that would cause people to get lost in the woods. They would say that they had been ‘Puck-ledden’ or that Robin Goodfellow (another name for Puck) had been with them tonight. Puck exists in many forms—the Irish version of him has the head of a donkey.”
Puck, like the master he serves, is neither good nor bad, but can switch between being
kindly and dangerous. Parker says that “we’re trying to play the fairies with that kind of dichotomy of personality—they can serve you one moment and sever your jugular the next.”
We can assure you, though, that the throats of all audience members will be left intact. We cannot assure you that you might not begin to look twice at the shadows when you enter the woods.
Summer Shakespeare’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens this Thursday night. Tickets are now sold out!