ATHENS – Theater, that powerful underappreciated window on the world and our souls, is one of Hellenism’s greatest gifts to humanity. When it comes with the Shakespeare label, the “seriousness” threatens to overcome the “fun” of even the Bard’s great comedies, but the recent production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the “Olympia Musical Theater–Maria Callas” thrilled a packed house, serving up heaping measures of laughter, insight, and food for thought.
Ονειρα Θερινης Νυκτος provided an extra dimension of delight because the Symphonic Orchestra and the Chorus of the Municipality of Athens presented the play in the context of the sublime incidental music of Felix Mendelsohn.
The play has four overlapping plots prompted by preparations for the wedding of “Duke Theseus of Athens” and Hippolyta, the Amazon queen he captured but must subdue, also a parallel theme in the marriage of Oberon, King of the faeries, and Titania.
The actors all performed with skill, a balanced troupe given that the show is often stolen by the character Puck – in Greek, cutely rendered as Πουκ – Oberon’s knavish sidekick, and Bottom, the unfortunate/fortunate member of a band of actors given a donkey head by Puck, but who also causes the beautiful Titania to fall madly in love with him.
The actors cavort not on sets, but in the imaginations of the audience as stimulated by effectively used images – mainly from paintings by European Masters – projected onto the huge screen at the back of the stage.
The setting is the forest outside Athens, in a magical atmosphere beneath the light of the moon.
As much as the Greek guests enjoyed the production, one must be an Anglophone used to seeing Shakespeare in England or America to fully appreciate the success of the actors, the director Vasilis Nikolaidis – who is with the Greek National Opera, and the on-the-money rhythm and rhyme translation of Dionisis Kefalis.
The orchestra’s flute and string sections handled the complex melodies with aplomb, bringing lightness and light to the space and the souls of those present, all to the credit of the musicians, the singers, and the Maestro, Archimandrite Father Chrysanthos Alisafis, also with the National Opera. The talented young woman on tympani – an easily missed instrument – accented the mix with spice and humor, and Areti Mokalis’ fine choreography was integral to the magic weaved by actors and dancers as they moved about in Mendelsohn’s liquid score.
The audience, which showered actors and musicians with applause, was presumably not fooled by “all’s well that ends well” conclusion – the profundity of the play is manifested as much by the individual thoughts and discussion it stimulated among its witnesses as by the words of Shakespeare, which caused all to wonder about the nature of reality – and the realities of love and passions.
Some poets and playwrights see themselves more as prophets than artists, and this Athens production, with the questions it raises about both internal and external reality is timely during an age of anxiety already exploring virtual reality and wondering what kind of world awaits when A.I. and robots will make stories about gods and fairies seem less quaint.