Set in the backyard swamps of Southern America, A Midsummer Night’s Dream in New Orleans aspires to transplant the Bard’s high energy comedy to a completely alien sensibility. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been extremely popular in recent years, and with good reason: Shakespeare’s comedy is high octane and speedy, wickedly funny and clever. So one must ask if the play’s naturally sharp dialogue can be translated into the smooth, easy going crawl of New Orleans, Louisiana? Ruby in the Dust Theatre surely makes an incredible effort and took exciting risks, but something is still lost in the adaptation.
Probably the most disconcerting aspect of the play was its hyper-sexualisation of the play’s many plot lines. Discomfort abounds as we watch Demetrius struggle to keep his hands off Helena, even as he castigates her with scathing insults; later he seemingly assaults Hermia, taking advantage of her desperation and violating her several times. These feelings never really abate, starting when we see newlyweds Theseus and Hippolyta writhing on the ground, as if fighting for sexual dominance. Strangest of all was Snout’s burlesque dancer lion, who kept dropping her scarf so she could bend over suggestively. Usually played timid and slow, the decision to sexualise Snout the lion was symptomatic of the entire production. As the play progresses, more and more clothes are shed; Demetrius’s starchy white linen suit gets exchanged for Huckleberry Finn-esque trousers and Hermia somehow ends up in tennis shorts. The bayous are wild, the production seems to say, and everyone who gets pulled into it becomes wild as well.
Whilst the acting was generally okay, there wasn’t much of a spark. The frenetic energy of Midsummer gave way to a slow crawl by mid-play. You sat there kind of wishing it would move a little faster, that Helena wasn’t so melancholy. Passion and strong emotions are important, but the actors of the entire production seemed only able to emote the negative ends of these two. Where is the complex humour of Helena who is possibly one of the most pathetic and inspiring female Shakespearean characters out there? Hers and Hermia’s brawl was all angsty sighing and snarling, whilst Demetrius and Lysander’s conflict just became tedious after a while. The play just wasn’t very funny, which is a shame because surely Midsummer has one of the richest repositories of comedic potential, physical and verbal, in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. I asked myself several times during the play, Why am I so bored or sad? It might have been the snail’s pace of the production, or maybe even just the wish for something to laugh at.
American accents can be damnably difficult to pull off; regional accents suffer a lot more, and the Southern twang and pull of Louisiana and Georgia is one of the more complex ones to perform. The cast’s attempt is valiant, but their inconsistent employment of the accent made it difficult to focus. The cramped accommodations of the Arts Theatre’s attic made for a stifling environ, (probably accurate for a muggy bayou) and the opening scene, performed to the spooky lyrics of Marie Laveau, really set the tone of a voodoo underworld. Yet the production failed to carry through its theme, especially at crucial intervals. It’s hard to imagine Puck running “over hill and dale” in a swamp. The play is not able to get away from it undeniably European roots, and its use of voodoo can hardly be anything but a gimmick. One must commend Ruby in the Dust for their courageous effort, and their ideas were inspired, but it simply did not work as well as it could have.