While Theatre NDSU’s version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is set strongly in the ’80s, Shakespeare is omnipresent: Jess Jung, the director, kept the original language, making little alterations to the speech and rhythm.
“It’s hard because as the actor on stage, you have the responsibility of telling the people in the audience what you’re saying, even though they might not understand the actual words coming out of your mouth,” Megan Frisk, who plays Hermia, said.
Frisk was one of the students who took an “Acting in Shakespeare” workshop with Jung at the beginning of the rehearsal process. Acting in Shakespeare is a required class offered through the theatre arts department, usually taught in junior or senior year.
Because the cast was so large (at around 22 people), many of the members hadn’t taken the class. Jung taught the workshop so every student, no matter their role, had an understanding of the text and Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter before stepping onto the stage during formal rehearsal time.
The cast fluctuated between experiencing Shakespeare as an actor for the first time and being old hands with the Bard’s work.
Tommy Hoesley, a senior in theatre arts, has performed Shakespeare before. In high school, Hoesley was in “King Lear,” and this past summer he was in a part of a production of “Twelfth Night.”
Even still, Hoesley, who plays Nick Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” said he learns from every Shakespeare production he’s a part of.
“Each production I do, I understand the language more,” he explained. “Especially in high school, I thought I knew what I was saying, but I really didn’t. So now, it’s just being able to read it and understand right away what I’m saying. I’m able to enjoy it and see the little intricacies that he’s written in there. It just adds more life to it. As I read more, as I perform more Shakespeare, I enjoy it more and more.”
The actors weren’t the only ones involved in the production who needed to understand Shakespeare to make the neon-colored world real: Molly Vines, one of the costume designers for the play, explained that part of her research process involved analyzing Shakespeare’s text.
“It’s definitely a process of like, reading the script, thinking what I think this person is like,” she explained, “and how their attitude or what they say or how they act would influence what they wear. And this one’s hard because you can’t really take Shakespearean text and translate it directly to ’80s prom.”
As a costume designer, Vines is in charge of the Mechanicals.
“The Mechanicals are like the group of kids in the boy’s bathroom in “Sixteen Candles” when Anthony Michael Hall has the underwear,” Vines explained. “And he’s like, look at this. And they’re all like, oh my God, because none of them had seen women’s underwear before.”
These images, Vines said, are “tangible things.”
“(I did a lot of research) trying to comprehend what the difference is between ’80s nerds,” Vines said. “Looking back, we think, oh my gosh, that’s so nerdy. Like all of it is so nerdy. So, differentiating between what was cool back then and what made the other kids stand out to be nerdy or weird. A lot of it was hair and glasses and headgear and outdated clothes.”
While the ’80s have been adding a lot to the production, especially in research by students, the cast and crew find the addition to Shakespeare refreshing.
“I think setting it in the ’80s makes it more accessible to people who don’t read Shakespeare, who don’t watch Shakespeare a lot, so then they can enjoy the show just as much without needing to be a scholar of Shakespeare,” Hoesley added.
And even though it’s a play set in the ’80s, written in the English Renaissance by William Shakespeare, students should have no problem relating to one of the characters in the play.
“I think that everybody could find a little bit of themselves in at least one of the characters,” Ariel Walker, who plays Oberon in the production, said.
The actors themselves have been finding themselves through their characters.
Hoesley said, “I’ve pulled (inspiration) from my own prom experience. Obviously, my prom was a lot different than the ’80s, but I figure that it’s probably going to be pretty similar.”
Frisk went on to say she sees a lot of herself in her character, Hermia.
“I relate to Hermia, personally, a lot more than I thought I would,” she said. “You don’t really know about, like, that wild Shakespeare character is totally me, but Hermia is a lot like me in the sense that she knows what she wants, and she keeps that with her all the time. She’s a very driven character.”
Even if you can’t relate to a fairy placing a love potion on you, causing you to fall in love with the wrong person, or the same fairy turning you into a literal donkey, you may still find joy in watching Shakespeare’s characters running around stage in nylon windbreakers to a soundtrack of synth-pop.
“We’re living in Shakespeare’s words, but also, we’re in the ’80s prom, so they’re all bangs and teased hair and pretty dresses,” Frisk said. “I think it works really nicely together.”
This was a hope of Jung when she first came up with the idea, thinking of Molly Ringwald in “Sixteen Candles” one night:
“That’s what I’m hoping, is that the piece is going to bridge generations,” Jung said. “That the people who went to ’80s prom are going to feel about it in a different way and they’re going to want to come to it for a different reason than your generation.”
Theatre NDSU’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs through Dec. 8 in Askanase Auditorium. Tickets are free for NDSU students and can be purchased through the NDSU Performing Arts Box Office or online.