When I was a kid of about 10, I saw my first production of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” And while I thought the big acting and medieval costumes were interesting, I have to admit I didn’t understand much of the poetic high English. When my teacher asked what we liked most about the show, all 25 students in my class agreed it was the donkey but none of us could explain the donkey’s role.
Having never seen Pacific Northwest Ballet’s version of Midsummer, the company’s 1997 redesign of George Balanchine’s 1962 classic, I was curious if a danced version of Shakespeare would be easier or harder to understand for the average grade-schooler. After all, there’s a whole lot of who loves who now to track.
The short answer is this: It is way, way easier to understand the Bard’s story through the stripped-down basics of PNB’s version, the company’s exquisite dancing and laugh-inducing dramatics, and its astonishingly beautiful set design. Call out to the corps of hysterical child fairies who twirl and twiddle and twitter through many scenes. Their presence is magical, silly, delightful, and sure to be most memorable for young viewers.
I caught 9-year-old Liliana between to see if she agreed – and to see if she understood the story. She summarized the entire show in one long run-on sentence:
“The king is annoyed at the queen and teases her by making her fall in love with the donkey and then his assistant mixes everything up and makes the girl in red fall in love with the boy in blue and the boy in blue fall in love with the girl in red and then they use magic so everyone is married to the right person.”
The assistant in question, of course, Puck, the fairy King Oberon’s sidekick, or henchman, depending on your point of view. This production’s Puck (danced by Christian Poppe) steals the show for audience members young and old.
The story in a nutshell:
Queen Titania and King Oberon get into a spat about who gets to keep a new child that has come into their midst. When Titania takes the child away, Oberon gets mad and orders his minion Puck to gather a special flower that makes someone fall in love with the first person they see after smelling it and to wave it in front of the queen while she sleeps. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the forest, Oberon sees a young woman (Liliana’s “girl in red”) being rebuffed by a young man (the boy in red). Oberon charges Puck to wave the flower under the boy’s nose. Somewhere nearby a boy in blue and a girl in blue are madly in love. Puck accidentally mistakes the boy in blue for the boy in red and exposes him to the magical flower. Unfortunately, when the boy in blue wakes up, the first one he sees is the wrong one – the girl in red. He falls madly in love with her and disregards his true love, the girl in blue.
While the four young lovers wander confused and forlorn in the woods, Puck gets on with Oberon’s revenge plan against Queen Titania. Puck changes a local weaver into a donkey and places the donkey beside Queen Titania’s bed. He waves the flower under her nose. When she wakes up, the donkey is the first thing he sees and she falls madly in love with it. Mayhem ensues throughout the forest.
Eventually, King Oberon’s anger at Titania subsides, and Puck reverses the flower curse on Titania so she can return to loving the King. The King and Puck figure out Puck’s mistake with the young lovers and that too is reversed, although the magic flower is used on the boy in red so that he finally falls in love with the girl in red.
The second act of the show is dedicated to the weddings of the couples and many gorgeous dance duets.
Why to go
I could recommend seeing PNB’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the sets alone. Lush and colorful do not aptly describe them. Think ice cream and sherbet hues on the dancers juxtaposed against vivid and bold colors of forest and rose garden. Fairies are small, so the sets give the illusion of being bug-sized amidst towering plants. It’s a Bug’s Life meets Victorian elegance.
But I don’t need to recommend this production on the background art alone. With or without all that verdant scenery, the dancing is delightful, fun, energetic, and often comical. And Puck is a character kids will latch onto for the wild and wonderful ride and one they will remember long after they dance out of the building.
I recommend age 7 and up. As fast-paced and riveting as the action is, younger viewers may find it difficult to sit through.
A Midsummer Night’S Dream is on stage at McGraw Hall through April 23 with performances Apr 15 and April 22 at 2:00 p.m. and April 15, 20, 21, and 22 at 7:30 p.m., and April 23 at 1 p.m. Tickets start at $48. Teens 13 to 19 are eligible for $5 tickets through TeenTix. To learn how to utilize TeenTix at PNB, be sure to check the ballet’s website. Students, seniors (patrons 65+), school employees, people employed in the arts and culture sectors, and government or military employees can purchase half-price PNB rush tickets on the day of a show by calling for visiting the Phelps Center or McCaw Hall Box Office.