Theater production to stage fantasy, vexations of “Dream”

From Nov. 10 to 19, the St. Olaf theater department will be putting on its most recent production, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by William Shakespeare.

One of the Bard’s most popular plays, many readers are already familiar with the story of runaway Athenian lovers, quarreling fairies and a group of amateur actors that stumble through misadventures in the forest.

The upcoming production is directed by theater artist-in-residence Dona Werner Freeman ’80. Though not a hard and fast rule, the theater department typically stages a Shakespeare play approximately once every two years, in homage to the college’s history with the Elizabethan playwright, dating back to 1921.

“Shakespeare plays provide a great opportunity for student actors, especially those considering graduate degrees in acting, as most conservatory and Master of Fine Arts programs require Shakespearean audition pieces for acceptance,” Freeman said.

In a theater department season that seems to center around a theme of surviving in the face of struggle, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” feels like a natural choice of play.

“I love ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in particular for its powerful, yet positive and warm, message about unity and harmony in the wake of chaos,” Freeman said. “Especially since we are premiering our show just a couple days after this bitterly divisive campaign season, I think the play is perfectly timed. It’s a great moment to consider reconciliation, on campus in America, and in the world at large.”

Freeman’s vision for the show centers around the concept of the play itself being the dream of a young girl under duress during a transitional period in life, with figures in the dream correlating to parallels in her real life. While this backstory will not be directly presented, it was used extensively to inform the production’s approach to the text. The playmakers carefully considered how best to represent a dream on stage.

This particular production is also particularly ambitious in terms of its scale and technical requirements, featuring a surreal set centered around a large spiral ramp leading to nowhere. This set, colored mostly in an off-white pallette, serves as a canvas for lighting designer Joanna McLarnan ’17. McLarnan faces the challenge of not only using lighting to accent the themes and action of the play, but also to establish different locations across scenes and to preserve the dreamlike feel of the show.

“Since the production is set in a young girl’s dream, the stage scape has been designed to evoke the fantastical and the imaginary,” McLarnan said. “Preparation for the show is going really well and we are ready as far as I’m concerned.”

“Dream” also sees the return of some familiar faces to the Hill. The department has brought in alumni Andy Lindvall ’14 and Erin Knadler ’15 to assist with the production. Lindvall, who has previously taught workshops on “Improv Shakespeare” worked with the cast on sponteneity, energy and characterization. Knadler worked with the set team to paint the ramp to nowhere, the trees that support it and a moon that flies down from the sky.

In addition, senior Gabrielle Dominique ’17 has worked as choreographer on the production. Working with the cast during the rehearsal process, Dominique created moments of dance and movement that will add an extra element of quality to the show – particular in some larger dance pieces in the play’s second half.

After several works of rehearsing the show, the cast of “Dream” is eager to present their work to the public. Cast member Stephen Oberhardt ’19, who plays Puck – arguably the most famous character from the play – is grateful for the strong source material he has to work from.

“I’d say Midsummer is probably one of the most carefully well-written of Shakespeare’s comedies,” Oberhardt said.

As Puck, the mischevious hobgoblin trickster, Oberhardt finds himself in one of the production’s most rambunctious roles. Oberhardt repeatedly bursts out of a trapdoor, runs around on all fours and plays a variety of bizarre instruments throughout the play.

“Playing Puck is both fun and challenging. I get to run around the stage and get up to all these zany antics,” Oberhardt said. “It’s so fun to do, but it’s also really demanding, physically-speaking.”

The production also sought inspiration in St. Olaf’s own history. This will be the seventh time “Dream” has been produced at the college, the first in 1924. Freeman incorporated elements of these past productions into the show. One example of this is the use of Felix Mendelssoehn’s musical suite composed for the play, which was played by the St. Olaf Orchestra in the earliest productions on the Hill. The Theater Building’s gallery will feature an exhibit on these past productions during the run of the play.

“I urge people to come and see the show. Shakespeare’s script alone makes this is a great play – there’s a reason it’s famous around the world – but what we’ve done in terms representing that script through our acting, lighting, sound, set and everything else just really brings it all to life. Everyone who loves Shakespeare should definitely come,” Oberhardt said.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” opens on Thursday, Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m. and plays for two weekends. Tickets are available online or in the box office in the Theater Building. Tickets are free for students.