By David Greenham
Queen Mab’s premiere production is an energetic, 80-minute, one-man performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Solo Performance by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jessica Ernst. Music composed and performed by Jay Mobley. Performed by Benjamin Evett. Produced by Queen Mab, a Micro-Theatre. Performed at the Multicultural Arts Center, Second Street, Cambridge, MA. (Closed)
Queen Mab, a new stage company founded by well-known local actor Benjamin Evett, popped up at Cambridge’s Multicultural Center last weekend and, if the performer and his creative collaborators get their way, it might just pop up again in an alternative theater space in your neighborhood.
Queen Mab is an “Evett’s Dream” of sorts. Its goal is to bring “Shakespeare and other great dramas to communities throughout New England, in professional micro-productions performed by no more than three actors that celebrate language, intimacy, and the transformative powers of live theater.”
Their premiere production is an energetic, 80-minute, one-man performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream in which Evett plays all of the Bard’s characters. He utilizes only a few hand props and costume pieces, but that is enough, given his abundant acting skills, which have been on display at ART and other area stages for years.
The production begins with a scripted, non-Bard introduction of each character via a series of rhyming couplets that display, up front, Evett’s charm and humor. We also learn the physical cue for each character which, if you didn’t know the story well, turns out to be a lot of help. For example, the Duke sports a small crown and Egeus a pair of glasses; Bottom wears a flat cap set forward and Peter Quince wears it backwards. The differences among the fairies is supplied by the lighting. Oberon is bathed in blue light, Titania in green, and Puck is red.
With some exposition and the physical map of the figures out the way, the production begins in earnest, with Evett jumping back and forth between characters as he follows (about half) of Shakespeare’s text.
Evett is an immensely talented guy. He’s fun to watch and mostly masterful in skedaddling from character to character. Director Jessica Ernst has come up with some really fun sight gags. The result is that there are more than a few moments in which the gimmick of the one-man show gives way to some really lovely scene work. One highlight: the (Act II, scene 2) exchange between Lysander (who is played as a laid back and cool guy) and Hermia (who is played on her knees because she’s shorter than Helena) about where they should sleep.
The one-man show approach seems best fitted to the scenes featuring the rude mechanicals. Evett’s comic chops shine brightly when, as Peter Quince, he introduces the characters of Pyramus and Thisbe to the overbearing Bottom, the squeamish Flute, and painfully shy Snug. Evett slips seamlessly from one character to the next with, literally, a shift of his hat.
The action on the small 10 x 10 stage was augmented by Jay Mobley’s wonderful soundscape, which draws on guitar, synthesized sound effects, singing, and eerie whistling to create various moods, including that of mystery.
There were some lighting challenges at the performance I attended, so I’ll avoid drawing conclusions except to note that the Queen Mab concept is direct and straightforward. The set is minimal: an acting area with prop tables sitting at either side. Three ottomans serve as every seat, bed, and stump necessary for the action. One deceptively clever touch was a table downstage right, which is dedicated to signifying location. For the scenes in Athens at the Duke’s palace, a toy castle was placed (with due sense of ceremony) on the table. Once the action shifted to the forest, a bonsai tree perfectly represented the woods that were home to the fairy King and Queen.
This tour de force one-man Midsummer had all the makings of a mesmerizing meditation on the skill of the actor—perhaps even a fresh way of staging an oft-oft produced Shakespeare classic. In the end, neither of those goals were achieved. Part of the problem is that, aside from the solo performance, the conceptual approach to Midsummer was fairly run-of-the-mill. The characters were played in a consistent and predictable manner — no inventive interpretative choices were made. The need to cut nearly half of the play understandably diminishes some of the Bard’s subtleties. Moreover, the lack of any creative tech outside of sound means that the fantastical possibilities most contemporary Midsummer productions revel in aren’t possible. Here, the actor rather than the play’s the thing, and ultimately there’s probably not enough of Evett to go around, though there are few actors who would have enough arrows in their quiver to pull off as ambitious a project as this.
But don’t take my word for it. Go and see this valuable company for yourself. What Evett and his compatriots are trying to do is to bring great theater into the lives of people who are unlikely to enter the Wooden O or any other kind of traditional theater space. Queen Mab has come to an admirable realization: if challenging drama is going to survive outside of its customary turf, performers will need to leave the friendly confines of the mainstream theater. They are going to have to venture into new territory. Three cheers for Evett and friends for taking the plunge. Wholly mesmerizing or not, this solo performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is proof that Queen Mab is onto something good — and necessary.
David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Associate Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He is the current chair of the Maine Arts Commission, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.