The folks at Ypsilanti’s Dreamland Theater will premiere their new production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream this Saturday. In advance of that, I thought that I’d ask our friend Naia Venturi a few questions.
MARK: Would it be an exaggeration to say that you’ve been working on your puppet version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for well over a year now?
NAIA: It’ been approximately 16 months. The project started as a result of the work we did for the the film A.K.A. Jimmy Picard. In the movie, we did a scene with Benicio Del Toro where he’s watching us perform a puppet show. The show he’s watching is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I started working on the puppets and scenes for the movie in June of 2012, and we shot the scenes the following month. After all the work and time that I invested in making puppets and costumes, editing the script for puppetry, and rehearsing scenes, most of which were never used, I was determined to do a full production of the play.
MARK: Is this the first new performance you’ve brought to the stage since wrapping A.K.A. Jimmy Picard?
NAIA: No. We’ve performed a few different puppet shows since the movie shoot, although we did stop doing shows these last few months, so that we could start focusing on this one. It’s a pretty major production… There are 18 marionettes, a dozen or so shadow puppets designed by Patrick Elkins, some small illuminated fairy puppets, and an original score by Andy Mitchell.
MARK: Speaking of A.K.A. Jimmy Picard, when’s it going to be released? And have you seen any of it?
NAIA: I haven’t seen it, but I’m very much looking forward to it. The world premier was at the Cannes Film Festival in May, but I haven’t seen any of it. It hasn’t fared well, review-wise. The U.S. premiere was at the New York Film Festival on October 1. I’m not sure when it will show up in Michigan.
MARK: The plan, as I understand it, is to go live with your production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Saturday, October 19. Is that right?
NAIA: That’s right. I had originally scheduled it for October 12, but, due to a number of factors, we ended up postponing the opening for a week.
MARK: So, what can you tell us about this production? How’s it perhaps different from other productions that have gone before? Have you, for instance, set it in a more contemporary context? Does it, maybe, take place in a blood plasma collection facility, or inside a video game, instead of in the forest? Is the wedding at the center of the drama, perhaps, a gay wedding?
NAIA: Although those are all excellent ideas, this production is more or less traditional, except when it comes to the costumes. Ours are somewhat Elizabethan, rather than ancient Greek. Plus, one on Oberon’s minions has a boom box. He’s one of the shadow puppets that Patrick made. When I asked why he needed a boom box, Patrick said, “In a group of bad-ass minions, there always has to be one with a boom-box.”
MARK: As I recall, in the original play, which was written by Shakespeare about 425 years ago, a number of the actors are controlled by fairies. As you’ll physically be controlling the marionettes, I’m curious as to whether you and the other puppeteers will be playing some of the fairie roles. And, if so, whether that presents significant challenges? …Does that make sense? I guess what I’m trying to say is that “puppetry,” defined broadly as the manipulation of others, is kind of an integral part of the play already, and I’m curious as to how you address that in a production where the parts are being performed by actual puppets…
NAIA: The fact that the play deals with manipulation is one of the main reasons I wanted to adapt it for puppets. One of my favorite exchanges in the play takes place when Helena accuses Hermia of being a “puppet” because she thinks that Hermia is being manipulated by Lysander and Demetrius to make fun of her. I also love the play within the play. The way that the make-shift acting troupe (especially Bottom) is continually modifying the play, is brilliant. By the end, what they perform for the Duke, is completely different from what Quince, the director, had intended.
MARK: If people can’t make opening night, will you be performing it any other times?
NAIA: Most definitely. With the exception of a few days around the holidays, we’ll be performing this almost every Saturday through January. I’ll post the performance dates on the Dreamland website calendar once they’re solidified.
MARK: Does the Mark Maynard puppet have a role? If so, is it a significant and challenging one?
NAIA: I ended up casting the Mark puppet as Demetrius (specifically because he’s one of the few puppets I’ve made whose eyes close when he lies down). The character of Demetrius is a bit of a scoundrel. He’s dated and dumped Helena, and then goes after Hermia (her best friend). He’s the only character that’s not cured of the fairy charm in the end. I used some of my other marionettes as follows: my Mos Def puppet is Quince, my Britney Spears puppet is Hermia, and my Sarah Palin is Hippolyta. I also have a puppet that looks a little bit like Benicio Del Toro, and he plays Robin Starveling. I made that puppet for A.K.A. Jimmy Picard. In the movie, he played the character of Bottom. I thought it would make the scene with Benecio Del Toro better if the puppet he interacts with looked like him. (In the movie, Del Toro, who’s playing a patient in a psych ward, gets angry while watching a puppet show, and grabs the marionette playing the character of Bottom.) Arnaud Desplechin, the director of the film, didn’t like the idea, though, so I veered away at the last minute from making the likeness too overt. You can still kind of tell, though.
MARK: Assuming you’re acquainted with all of the versions of the play that are out there in various forms, I’m curious as to which you feel are the best.
NAIA: Well, I haven’t seen all the versions out there, but I absolutely love the 1935 Hollywood production, as did Arnaud. I fashioned the Oberon character to be almost a duplicate of the Oberon in that movie. And I liked Diana Rigg’s portrayal of Helena in the 1968 version. (My marionette Helena’s face ended up looking a bit like Rigg.) I also really liked Kevin Kline as Bottom in the 1999 movie.
MARK: What’s your personal connection to A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Do you, for instance, remember when you first saw it performed?
NAIA: I like it the most of all the Shakespeare plays that I’ve read and seen performed. The 1935 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first Shakespeare play that I saw (probably on “Bill Kennedy at the Movies”). I’m not sure that A Midsummer Night’s Dream would have been my first choice of a Shakespeare play to make into a puppet show had it not been for the Jimmy Picard project, but I’m really happy to be doing it. It’s been a lot of fun.
[note: Photos courtesy of Christine Bruxvoort.]