Like many of Shakespeare’s locations, the Athens of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an imaginary one, resembling neither the historical place of classical antiquity nor his contemporary environment in Elizabethan England. It’s a fascinating place — one that seems to exist between worlds, somewhere between day and night, real and seeming, waking and dream.
Wayang Kulit, the art of South East Asian shadow puppetry, is the oldest continuous tradition of storytelling in the world. As practiced in Indonesia and Malaysia, performances are led by a puppeteer, who uses intricately crafted puppets backlit and viewed by an audience on a translucent screen. The puppeteer, or “Dalang,” manipulates more than one hundred puppets in a single evening and is accompanied by a percussion orchestra, creating a performance that connects ancient practices and legends with a contemporary audience. The world he creates is one of grand consequences, where fate controls important men and women whose lives are all impossibly intertwined and dependent on one another. And while he does this, he tells a story — a story of adventure, mystery, intrigue, and moral rectitude.
In creating a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream inspired by Indonesian and Malaysian shadow puppetry, it was important to me that we approach our translation with cultural honesty. I grew up in Asia (as did my parents and grandparents), and though I have been deeply fascinated by Wayang Kulit for a long time, I am not an expert on the form, nor am I truly native to the country in which these performances take place. All of our artists are American and are from disparate backgrounds and experiences, but being American our access to South East Asian culture can never be more than academic. One of my earliest questions was “How do we reconcile and fuse together the familiar and the remote without compromising the art form?”
The source for the story itself was already different — we were performing Shakespeare instead of the ancient Hindu stories that make up Wayang Kulit — and as for the approach, we could draw on the unique experiences of a terrific group of artists.
We set about building our own version of a gamelan orchestra, using found objects in our own world — tin cans, pieces of steel, children’s toy instruments — and though the musical scales and intervals might be inspired by a gamelan orchestra, the strange and playful instrumentation is all ours, built from the wild minds of our actors and our musical director, James Bigbee Garver. The puppets, beautifully crafted by Alex Vernon, might draw some inspiration from the Asian form in terms of the angles and internal carvings, but they are equally influenced by classic marionettes, Victorian silhouette puppets, and children’s pop-up books. The sets and costumes designed by Debra Kim Sivigny share a similar melding of worlds, incorporating some batik and Asian lines with Western materials and styles.
There is actually a tradition in Wayang Kulit to adapt to the environment of the audience. Even the most traditional performance will incorporate stories from the community in which it’s performed. Local and global politics are often lampooned and sometimes Western stories are appropriated. For fun, google “Wayang Kulit” and “Star Wars” and you will see some remarkable work by a Malaysian group called Fusion Wayang Kulit.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a rare play that goes beyond Shakespeare’s frequent interest in dreams and escapism. It is his most metaphysical play, and it explores the other side of reality in a way that no other work of his does, save perhaps The Tempest.
It is common in his comedies for lovers to escape into a green world — a forest, a rural carnival, another country — but in Midsummer, the lovers escape into a world of actual spirits. Indeed, it is unclear whether this world exists at all.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays to February 14, 2016, at Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two, 2700 South Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 418-4808, or click here.
Randy Baker is a director, playwright, and the co-artistic director of Rorschach Theatre. Recent directions: Big Love (Catholic University), Rashomon (American University), Very Still and Hard to See and She Kills Monsters (Rorschach Theatre). Recent original plays: The Burning Road (Arena Stage, development), Forgotten Kingdoms
(Rorschach Theatre, upcoming production).