REVIEW: All-Female Cast Blazes the Trail Forward in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (AMND) is a tricky play to produce. The perils of this much-loved play include the threat of overfamiliarity, and as with any Shakespeare text, the pressure of making 17th century phrases clear to a generation accustomed to online texts. It is often among a Filipino student’s earliest introductions to Shakespeare’s works, with the star-studded 1999 film version being shown yearly to sleepy high school students in their English classes, and the text itself a staple for school-based drama club productions.
This reviewer counts the film among the four previous iterations she has seen, making The Playbook Club (PBC)’s production the fifth. Entering the room with a mix of eagerness and trepidation, it was a delightful surprise to leave it feeling like I had seen an entirely new show. And from a new theater company! And it wasn’t merely because the cast was entirely female.
From online readings to live stage
PBC is a pandemic baby. Its founders started with online readings, eager to hone their craft through lockdown. Fresh-faced and courageous, the women who make up PBC are indeed young. And when actors are still in school, or barely out of it, there is idealism and commitment there that is made tangible and it is truly touching to behold. We audience members applaud them for bravely risking it all in such a daring gamble. Whatever sexual frisson that was understandably absent from the performance was made up for by the dangerous edge of the entire enterprise: to do what has not yet been done here.
And to my joy, this was the first time I watched the play and really saw the characters for who they were, and not like my high school cheat sheet. Removing gender from the equation made us focus on the entirety of the person, and was a welcome reflection on a higher form of love.
On the performative side, the actors were very much comfortable even with some risqué blocking.
A Strong Ensemble
For so young a cast, the average of the ensemble’s dramatic promise was remarkably high. Alternating between at least two roles, and showing a marked difference with each one, is a feat all were able to do with ease.
Nikki Bengzon and Erika Rafael were believably majestic whether in mortal form as Theseus and Hippolyta, or as faery royalty later as Oberon and Titania. Seeing them sway and move in white garments, with twinkling lights draped around their waists and wrists, was a truly magical sight.
Pia Ysobel Cruz and Giselle Giorgia gave competent performances as Hermia and Lysander, although Giorgia’s Wall is the performance that gave audiences most joy that evening.
Teia Contreras and Chez Cuenca as Demetrius and Helena were quite dedicated, with Cuenca’s aptly-characterized Gen-Z influencer Snob being one of the funniest characters onstage, returning for a bag because “it’s Prada” and forever taking selfies.
Enna Yap was absolutely fearless as Nick Bottom, while Barbara Jance gave arguably the strongest performance of the evening as Egeus and hipster director Peter Quince, namaste-ing her way to inner peace and asking if their play materials are ethically sourced.
Dippy Arceo as forever inebriated and hung-over Puck was also a brightly shining star, and was the complete opposite of when I first saw her as a gravitas-filled Polonia in Nelsito Gomez’s Hamlet. It was evident that the cast had enormous fun, and this translated to the audience as the hall was filled with uproarious laughter. This is truly Shakespeare, no boring text, but full of funny chaos and witty repartee retrofitted for a younger audience and a modern time. Who needs almanacs when one has cellphones? Borrowing good ideas from previous productions (like the National Theatre’s) but adding plenty of original ones, this is a wholly unique take that PCB made their own.
Director Nelsito Gomez is an artist on a mission to reach as wide an audience as possible. Fresh from directing a black box opera in La Bohème, he returns (assisted by Sarah Facuri) to the Mirror Studio for yet another theater-in-the-round production.
“Irreverent” is the term Gomez uses to describe his take on the Bard’s work, and in his hands, this is a good thing. This is the irreverence borne out of understanding for the context of this fairytale, where bawdy jokes abound alongside flashes of gravitas. Contradictory and complex? Perhaps. But then, so is love, and human nature.
Still Shakespeare… but different
It’s unmistakably Shakespearean. The lilt and rhythm of the words lend themselves well to song, and Gomez harnesses their innate musicality by having his characters alternate between chants and raps, complete with matching dance moves, and sometimes having the audience stomp/clap along.
Gomez also reassigns, rewrites, and adds a few lines. Most notably, the epilogue traditionally intoned by Puck was reimagined as lines uttered in chorus, with a few key words changed to suit the new ending. “If we shadows have offended” becomes “If we women,” in a humble plea for pardon if there are any hurt feelings from some in the audience who think Shakespeare too sacrosanct for modernization.
The End… or is it?
Perhaps the biggest artistic liberty taken was the new ending, that added so much and forced us audience members to re-examine what we had just seen, from the very beginning. This is an ending that may alienate half the audience, which is great for post-play discussion over the message of the play itself. With this take, the play was elevated from juvenile-if-well-done comedy to a reminder that love cannot exist without freedom to choose love’s object. And without Choice, one cannot have a happy ending. It is “very tragical mirth,” indeed.
It made us realize that the gender-blind casting is, in itself, a key message. And that agency, the liberty to act and love freely, is life itself.
“We hope you can pardon this new end. Set women free to choose their mind,” the cast intones almost prayerfully. Amen.
Tickets : P350.00 Show Dates: July 27, 29, and 30, 2023 (7:00 pm) Venue: The Mirror Studio, SJG Centre, Kalayaan Avenue, Poblacion, Makati Running Time: 2 hours (including a 15 minute intermission) Credits: William Shakespeare (playwright), Nelsito Gomez (Director), Sarah Facuri (Associate Director), Katreana Gamban (Stage Manager and Lighting Designer), G Roi Reyno (Assistant Stage Manager), Zed Pagkalinawan (Production Manager), Miguel Salaya (Production Assistant and Spinner) Cast: Nikki Bengzon (Theseus/Oberon), Erika Rafael (Titania/Hippolyta), Pia Ysobel Cruz (Hermia / Starveling / Mustardseed), Giselle Giorgia (Lysander / Snout / Peaseblossom), Teia Contreras (Demetrius / Flute/ Mote), Chez Cuenca (Helena / Snob / Cobweb), Enna Yap (Bottom), Barbara Jance (Egeus / Peter Quince), Dippy Arceo (Puck / Philostrate)