“Re-Told” is the theme of SATE’s 2023 season, which has challenged playwrights to retell, adapt, or respond to existing works. The season continues with This Palpable Gross Play: A Kind-of Midsummer Night’s Dream, by Ellie Schwetye with Lucy Cashion and Jimmy Bernatowicz. This retelling of Shakespeare’s great comedy is astonishingly clever and entertaining.
In the first of many inspired choices, Schwetye conflates Midsummer’s two characters named Robin: Robin Goodfellow, the prank-playing fairy also known as Puck, and Robin Starveling, the tailor who portrays Moonshine in the play by the Athenian artisans whom Shakespeare calls “rude mechanicals.” After introducing himself in a modified speech from Shakespeare, Robin recites a commercial for Lunesta, a contemporary remedy for insomnia. The sleeping pill’s side effects receive special attention for reasons that do not become clear until later.
In the next scene, Robin is joined by the other mechanicals, who hope to present a play at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. It is not, however, the play about Pyramus and Thisbe from Shakespeare. Instead, the artisans are rehearsing a play about Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius, and Helena, the four Athenian youths in the main plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The following scene introduces Oberon and Titania, the quarreling king and queen of the fairies, whose functions in Shakespeare’s plot are reversed in Schwetye’s version. It is Titania, not Oberon, who tells Robin to obtain the flower called love-in-idleness: “The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid / Will make or man or woman madly dote / Upon the next live creature that it sees.”
It is Oberon, not Titania, who receives a dose of the flower’s juice and falls in love with Bottom the weaver after his head has been turned into a donkey’s. This fate is a well-deserved comeuppance for Oberon’s cruelty to Titania in Shakespeare.
Also, Titania tells Robin to use the love-in-idleness juice on an Athenian youth who has spurned a woman who loves him. She has seen the mechanicals rehearsing their play and has mistaken it for real life. When Robin doses the other mechanicals with the magical juice, it has Lunesta-like effects, making them better actors than before. They all give delightful and totally convincing performances in the Athenian youths’ altercation in the wood.
Most of the lines in This Palpable Gross Play are from Midsummer, and the excellent SATE performers are fully alive to the nuances of character and language in Shakespeare. The rehearsal scenes include the sort of conversations a contemporary cast would engage in spontaneously during a rehearsal. The banter is hilarious, and the timing of the interpolations is exquisite.
The superb ensemble, in order of appearance, includes:
- Ross Rubright as Puck and Robin Starveling
- Kristen Strom as Peter Quince and Helena
- Andre Eslamian as Nick Bottom
- Kayla Ailee Bush as Francis Flute and Hermia
- Joshua Mayfield as Tom Snout and Demetrius
- Anthony Kramer Moser as Snug and Lysander
- Spencer Lawton as Oberon
- Victoria Thomas as Titania
Cashion’s direction brings admirable clarity to play’s multiple plots and mixture of action and rehearsal. Schwetye and Cashion’s scenic design aptly puts the fairies on a higher level than the humans. Class distinctions are emphasized in Liz Henning’s costumes, too. The fairies are in golden finery, while the mechanicals are in work clothes. A tailcoat works well for Robin in both his guises—as a mechanical he is a tailor, as a fairy he is Oberon and Titania’s servant. Also impressive are Rachel Tibbetts’ props, Erik Kuhn’s lighting, and Joe Taylor’s musical compositions and sound design.
This Palpable Gross Play continues Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. through September 2 in The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive. Tickets be purchased in advance through Eventbrite. For more information, visit www.satestl.org.
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The cast of This Palpable Gross Play.
Back from the left:
Victoria Thomas (Titania), Andre Eslamian (Nick Bottom), Ross Rubright (Puck/Robin Starveling), Spencer Lawton (Oberon), Joshua Mayfield (Tom Snout/Demetrius)
Front from the left:
Kristen Strom (Peter Quince/Helena), Anthony Kramer Moser (Snug/Lysander), Kayla Ailee Bush (Francis Flute/Hermia)