Dreams Surreal And Feverish At La Jolla Playhouse
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Shakespeare's comedy "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is brimming with manipulations, transformations and magic. Onstage at the La Jolla Playhouse, the play is also brimming with stunning sets and amazing acrobatics. In the hands of director Christopher Ashley, the story of young lovers in grease gets transported to Victorian England and is literally turned upside down. Joining us to talk about the production now running at La Jolla Playhouse is my guest, artistic director Christopher Ashley, fresh from Broadway as the director of this year’s Tony Award winning musical, “Memphis.” And, Christopher, welcome to These Days.
CHRISTOPHER ASHLEY (Artistic Director, La Jolla Playhouse): Thank you for having me.
ASHLEY: Thank you so much. It’s been a great month.
CAVANAUGH: Well, you’re staging here in San Diego “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” And, as I say, it has acrobatics, it has these beautiful sets. This is a comedy that’s inspired a lot of directors to take risks. So what is it about “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that lends itself to this burst of fantastic creation, this imaginative staging?
ASHLEY: You just said it.
ASHLEY: It’s fantastical. It’s very much about love, it’s hilarious, it invites music, which we’ve – an invitation we’ve taken fully, and we have a whole onstage symphony orchestra playing a score that goes right through. I think for directors, the joy of being in love and the difficulty of it are both captured in the play so it’s very funny and it’s very kind of detailed and difficult and challenging both. And it’s a story that really works, so you put it in front of an audience and like, wow, the journey of those lovers is so kind of fascinating and heartbreaking and hilarious. And it’s got fairies and in our production it’s got acrobats.
CAVANAUGH: Now I read that you came up with this idea, this idea for this production in a fever, while you were suffering from a fever. How did that go?
ASHLEY: You said it. I was lying in bed kind of in that sort of fever dream state and looking up at the ceiling and started to wonder what would it be like if the ceiling was the floor and you had to live your whole life upside down? And that idea kind of stuck in there and then a couple of years ago I was talking with Mark Bennett, who ended up being our composer, about what would it be like to do a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” upside down and that was actually the 200th anniversary of Mendelssohn’s birth when we were having the conversation and we started talking about Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and he got very excited about creating a score for a symphony orchestra that used Mendelssohn and also his own compositions and kind of interwove them. So that was the beginning of it. It was what about life lived upside down? Can we capture that feeling of being in love where you don’t quite know which way is up and which way is down? And it’s delightful and floaty and terrifying. And the idea of this Mendelssohn music together with Mark Bennett.
CAVANAUGH: Before we get to how you, as I say, turned the stage upside down, for listeners who kind of left off the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” back in sophomore year in high school, can you remind us what the comedy is about?
ASHLEY: So when we first – The lights come up in our production, we’re in the 1860s in a European Court. And Hermia is being forced by her father to marry someone she doesn’t want to marry, Demetrius, and she loves Lysander instead. And the father says, by the law of Athens she has to do what I say or she’s dead. And the king, Theseus, gives her four days to decide to do what her father wants. She runs away to the forest. Her best friend Helena follows because she’s in love with Demetrius. And in the forest, in our production, upside down, they meet the fairies who are sort of fascinated by humans and have a flower which can make – a love potion flower which can make anyone fall in love with anyone else.
ASHLEY: And they start remixing and matching who’s in love with who. So it’s these four lovers get hopelessly confused in love. The fairy queen falls in love with a mortal with an ass’s head on, Bottom.
ASHLEY: And in our production, we try to explore – we put it in the 1860s because it’s the most constricted time imaginable. The corsets are really uncomfortable and the clothing covers every inch of skin, and the furniture is very uncomfortable, and it’s not a sexually liberated time. So it seemed to me that if you started in the 1860s, wow, do you have a lot of exploration to do in the forest and a lot of liberation and the clothes can come undone and the characters can go on a complete sort of psychedelic journey of love.
CAVANAUGH: The forest really represents this complete loss of inhibition that the Victorian age imposed on everyone. I’m wondering, Christopher, how – because the set really does appear to turn upside down. How did you work that out? I understand that you worked with a puppeteer to make this happen.
ASHLEY: We did. There’s an amazing puppeteer named Basil Twist who was here last year with a production of
“Dogugaeshi” and he – his work is seen in the “Adams Family” on Broadway and he’s sort of one of America’s premier imaginative puppeteers. And he and I talked about how do you make inanimate objects come alive and turn upside down. So he looked at the first set renderings and said, oh, those curtains, what if those curtains kind of came off the windows and started flying around the room? And what if that chair over there started to float? And what if that table had a flower on it turned upside down and were – was where – from the ceiling was where they got the magic flower? And we were looking at the onstage piano and talking about what if that piano started to float and turn upside down? And the music came cascading off of the stand, the music stand, and turned into birds? So basically his is a very fertile imagination and once I said to him, anything – any inanimate object can come to life, he kind of went wild.
CAVANAUGH: Now what kind of stage management do you need every night to be able to pull off this little miracle?
ASHLEY: It’s really complicated. And we couldn’t do it without a couple of partnerships. The – We’re on campus at UCSD and we’ve got ten of the students in the production and they’re puppeteers and fairies and servants and sort of – Their fingerprints are all over the production. And we’re also doing it in partnership with San Diego Youth Symphony who have – provide incredible kind of energy and talent and passion, and they’re playing together with five professional musicians so there’s also a kind of mentoring aspect to it.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Christopher Ashley. He’s artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse and he’s directing the Playhouse’s production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." I’m wondering, with all the stuff going on onstage and it has been remarked upon in review after review that it is a stunning set and it is an incredibly inventive production, do you fear going too far, losing the essence of what the drama is or the comedy is onstage?
ASHLEY: Well, it’s interesting. All of that, kind of the visuals and the spectacular physicality, that’s sort of the last thing you put on a production. We started with a week to ten days at the table really carefully going through the text to pull apart what do we mean? What’s our interpretation of this line? Do we want to use the version of the text for this line that’s in the Folio…
ASHLEY: …or the corto or the bad corto? There’s all these versions of Shakespeare out there because it started out like a couple different people wrote it down hurriedly. So we were pretty careful to try to interpret the language and speak the language carefully, clearly and make sure that we had – that everybody was on the same page about who was – who were the characters and what’s the story before we started adding any of the visuals. So they’re – hopefully, the actors really have a real grounding and a base in the language of the play.
CAVANAUGH: You know, it also has been remarked upon that the young lovers in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" have been transformed into sort of middle-aged lovers…
ASHLEY: That’s right.
CAVANAUGH: …in your production. Tell us what the thinking was about that decision.
ASHLEY: Well, the characters are so articulate in Shakespeare and one of the experiences I always have when I’m watching a Shakespeare play and see young lovers, I think like what 20-year-old speaks like that? Who has – who speaks in like poetic metaphor and has that kind of control of language? So I believe it a little bit more in somebody who’s lived more life, and also as someone who’s middle-aged myself, I find myself very moved by the stakes of trying to find love in the middle of your life where you don’t have infinite numbers of love affairs coming, where the stakes are higher and the urgency is really high. And I think it helps the comedy actually of the piece that all of those people need to find love right now.
CAVANAUGH: I’d like you to talk a little bit about your cast. There are some actors that San Diegans will recognize, Jonathan McMurtry, Charlayne Woodard, J. Smith-Cameron also stars. Some listeners will recognize her from the current season of “True Blood.”
CAVANAUGH: How are these people working together?
ASHLEY: Kind of extraordinarily. As you mentioned, Jonathan McMurtry has done, I think, 200 Shakespeare productions in San Diego. This is his first time at the La Jolla Playhouse.
CAVANAUGH: That’s amazing.
ASHLEY: I’m so delighted to get him. And J. Smith-Cameron who plays Melinda Mickers (sic), I think, on “True Blood,” I worked with first 20 years ago so I have this like long and involved history with her and so when I started to think about "A Midsummer Night's Dream," I called her up and said, what do you want to play? You know, what’s exciting to you?
ASHLEY: And we started talking about Helena. She had played Hermia before. Her daughter, I think the day I called her up, her daughter had just read a comic book of "Midsummer Night's Dream." So when I – her daughter heard that we were talking about Midsummer, she said, Mommy, you gotta do it. So we’ve got a…
CAVANAUGH: A lot of good residents.
ASHLEY: We’ve got a real mix of, you know, amazing actors from New York. I think we’ve got 8 San Diego-based professional actors, and students from UCSD. So it’s a kind of melting pot. But I’m really proud of how they’ve achieved kind of one style together.
CAVANAUGH: Again, I’ve been talking about the things that have been remarked upon by people who’ve seen this production and reviewers. And one of the things, as you mentioned, is the score and the music in this production. And it’s, as you say, it’s intertwined with – Mark Bennett is intertwining his original score with Felix Mendelssohn.
CAVANAUGH: And there’s this – How does that add that what you wanted to create in this production?
ASHLEY: We wanted the world of the fairies to be mysterious and magical and sensual and the bed of music under all that – of the fairy scenes is really extraordinary. I – Mark brought to the table all of these very interesting musical instruments that I had never heard of or seen before. There’s something called the friction harp, which is these kind of golden rods that we put onstage and you watch the fairies play it whenever a magical spell is being cast.
CAVANAUGH: What does it sound like?
ASHLEY: It’s kind of like an eerie – it’s almost like a whale song. Very kind of beautiful, multi-tonal sounds. And we have actors playing it so it’s also – it’s really part of the story, watching them cast the spells with these musical instruments. There’s something called a Milltone, which is a special kind of like drum harp. So there’s all these kind of like fantastical instruments creating this fantastical score. And Mark Bennett was there every moment of the process with his music director, Eric Stern, who’s conducted symphony orchestras all over the world and also has a long history with the Playhouse. So it’s this team put together, and the score, is really interwoven with all of the acting choices because we really rehearsed the two together.
CAVANAUGH: Now before we have to end, I want to talk about – you talked about the coincidence in your actress here having her daughter read a comic book about "A Midsummer Night's Dream" while you were on the phone…
CAVANAUGH: …trying to get her to take a part in this production. There’s a Page-to-Stage production related to Midsummer that’s taking place next weekend. It’s a kid-friendly play. It’s called “Cankerblossom.” It’s on stage next weekend only, and how is it related to "Midsummer Night's Dream?"
ASHLEY: There’s a Philadelphia-based company called Pig Iron Theatre Company whose work I’ve always admired, and their director was coming through town about two years ago and I told him about Midsummer and he said, wow, we have all of these ideas about Midsummer that we’ve been working on. And I said why don’t you come when I’m doing Midsummer and present one of your versions of Midsummer? And it’s called “Cankerblossom” and this company puts together their work completely improvisationally. It’s very multi-disciplinary, multi-media. They don’t start with a script, they start with actors in a room inventing things improvisationally. And I think what they’ve come up with is kind of extraordinary. It’s got a little bit of feel from "Midsummer Night's Dream" on my production but they imagined what if this couple had a cardboard, flat baby left on their doorstep and fell in love with it and when the baby disappeared the next morning, they had to go into Flat World, a cardboard, two-dimensional world, to rescue their baby. And it’s fanciful and…
CAVANAUGH: And puppets involved.
ASHLEY: …imaginative. And puppets, and it’s – like Midsummer, it shares this idea of a journey into a forest and to another place and then back home again.
CAVANAUGH: My last question to you is what’s the next main stage production at Playhouse?
ASHLEY: “Limelight.” It’s a musical and it’s the story of Charlie Chaplin. First time ever on a stage.
CAVANAUGH: That’s really extraordinary, too. Christopher, I want to thank you so much.
ASHLEY: Thank you so much for having me.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with the artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse. He’s Christopher Ashley. We’ve been talking about his production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." It’s currently playing at La Jolla Playhouse and it will continue through August 22nd. If you’d like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.