I fell particularly in love with Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when I saw it performed in Central Park in New York City — a perfect setting, long ago, outdoors on a summer night, with William Hurt as a bemused but domineering Oberon.
I loved the play not for its thin various plotlines, but for the metaphysical confrontation at its center. Two quarreling couples and a ragtag theater group wander separately into a forest near Athens where they fall into the clutches of the magical beings who live in wild nature: fairies, sprites, indeterminate magical troublemakers and vengeful rulers of the spirit world, whose various dramas parallel those of the mortals they observe. The play exists where the two realms meet, though the harried souls who populate both worlds are so lost in their private agonies and yearnings that they barely care to register the alternate worlds that exist nearby.
The pranks and romantic mishaps are light touches upon the possibilities Shakespeare’s great engine of juxtaposition provides. “Midsummer Night’s Dream” succeeds not so much for the play it actually is as for the suggestion of all the plays that could take place in this magical forest where mortals and spirits intersect. The key character is Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, who flits from story to story and laughs about what fools these mortals be. The play’s most sublime scene offers the possibility that a hapless but vain local garment worker might find himself suddenly bearing a donkey’s head and making love to the great Fairy Queen herself in a comfortable flower petal bed while being tended to by winged forest creatures named Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mustardseed and Moth.
Juxtaposition: a moving new documentary called Midsummer in Newtown takes place in Newtown, Connecticut, where four years earlier twenty children and six brave educators were gunned down by a psychotic young loner armed with military-grade weapons that our country’s antiquated laws insist must be made easily available for open purchase. A bunch of Broadway-based theater professionals crash into town and set up shop at Sandy Hook Elementary School, looking for local children to cast in a high-spirited musical called “A Rockin’ Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
This beautiful film, which naturally had me crying by the end, focuses on three children, two who survived the shooting and one who did not. The one who did not is Ana Greene, whose mother became a fervent activist fighting insane gun laws in Washington DC while her father spilled out his pain in a complex jazz composition that seems to bear hearing on its own.
Then there is the tiny child named Tain, who wins the plum role of the gentle Lion who reminds the audience not to be scared in the play within the play. At the Sandy Hook school on the day of the shooting, this kid huddled with a mentally disabled classmate as the murderer stalked for victims; four years later, Tain brings the same friend to watch him perform in Shakespeare’s play. And then there is Samantha, a delightful tween whose younger face I seem to remember from pictures of the Sandy Hook aftermath itself. She is one of the fairies — not a major role, she sensibly explains, though being a forest creature is quite difficult in its own way. Samantha’s absolute delight upon being instructed to creep and swerve around a dark stage to increase the dramatic suspense before the lights go on proves that she is born to theatre, and shows how the serendipitous magic of this Shakespeare play exists at its edges rather than its center.
Midsummer in Newtown is a movie many people will be glad to watch, and it drops at a sinister time in the United States of America. I caught the movie one week after the hostile takeover of American democracy by a blatant fascist named Donald Trump. I do not call him President and never will, but I was reeling with anger as I walked into the theater after reading about a new “executive order” that insults and unfairly judges Muslims, and seems likely to stir up new levels of violence and carnage in a world that only wants peace.
Among other travesties this new “President” offers is a candidate for Secretary of Education who has pledged to bring more guns to schools, apparently to protect against grizzly bears and, yes, Muslims. Midsummer in Newtown is an understated portrait of a town surviving a trauma with the help of a Shakespeare comedy. But there are new tragedies looming for all of us today, and whether our national next act will bring a scene from King Lear or Julius Caesar remains to be seen.
As the storm rages around us, at least we know our children are still miraculous, and can still rise to any challenge we throw their way. The literary arts can still surprise us, can offer a lifeline in time of trauma and new ideas in time of crisis. In the cataclysm that seems to await our broken land, our creative spirits will help to give us the sustenance we need, and remind us of the delicate magic that is our existence itself. “And Robin Goodfellow shall make amends …”