Die to Live — says the Priest to the falsely accused Hero at a crucial moment in Much Ado About Nothing, and so ushers in a new perspective in Shakespeare’s comedy. We already hear intimations of it in those lines of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, called “Bottom’s Dream.” The buffoon recalls that he has had a vision “past the wit of man to say what his dream was.” In Much Ado, Hero is spirited away and believed dead by those who would accuse her, a false dream, a death, which allows her to live again. Already in this “comedy” we have pre-knowledge of King Lear’s deep folly and Paulina’s magic powers of resurrection. Most crucial though and most wonderful, is the scene between the combative lovers Beatrice and Benedick, just after this event. Here we have one of the extreme tests of the playwright’s comic method. Just as the lovers are able to acknowledge their passion for each other, the horror of the rejection and apparent death of Hero is also a main subject (the main subject?) of their great scene. Shakespeare is willing to require his Beatrice to demand that Benedick kill the accuser of Hero, her betrothed, Count Claudio. Benedick agrees as a kind of tragic seal on their love. Just as Hero has had to seem to die to live, Benedick’s and Beatrice’s love must include a death to live. Most wonderful of all, this scene is tender, without any of the sharpness these two characters show in their previous collisions. Wonderfully acted by Christopher Innvar and Gretchen Egolf at Barrington Stage, these few moments were a highlight of my summer. Mr. Innvar is the master of naturalness. He persuades us that iambic pentameter is a comfortable speech, not rendering it in slowed down spoonfuls, but letting us hear its form beautifully freed up. His naturalness as an actor fit so well with the off-handed way of Benedick. I liked the Beatrice of Ms. Egolf best when the play became serious. Then she began to sing and move me. Emily Taplin Boyd as Margaret also delivered her few lines with a telling beauty of speech that made her moment shine, even in company on this level. Since neither the caustic wit nor the tragic potential of the play was exaggerated, both convinced.
Something of the same can be said of Shakespeare and Company’s young A Midsummer Night’s Dream cast. Near the end of the play, Bottom orates to the person of no one in a wonderfully garbled version of one of St. Paul’s epistles, that he has had a dream which cannot be explained and which one assumes will soon fade, as dreams do. Remember, Bottom is the only character in the play who sees the fairies. As always with Shakespeare, since we also have seen them, we are left on a see-saw. Can we believe with Bottom that we have seen the magic? Or are we as full of folly as he is, and they may not be there at all? This quandary is further pondered by Hamlet when he scornfully admonishes a priest that there are more things in heaven and earth than he hath dreamed of — and most ambiguously expressed by Prospero at the end of Shakespeare’s writing life, in his great speech, “We are such things as dreams are made on.” The mix-ups in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are not permanent, nor are they serious. Its lovers show us that attraction lives in the mind more than in the body. When the mind is changed, in this case at the behest of Oberon the Fairy King, the body follows. And when the mind is fixed, happiness is possible. Any outdoor production of Dream limits a subtle realization of its quieter and most mysterious moments. That said, and I hesitate to single out any of the fine young actors in the production, Brittany Morgan’s Titania had a warmth in the way she spoke the bejeweled words of the Fairy Queen that went a long way to showing me some of the deep sweetness of the play. She also had power — remember the quarrel between Oberon and Titania alters the seasons. All in all this was an enjoyable, young performance full of specific energies.