Why two plays? Why these two plays?
Because the pairing of Midsummer Night’s Dream and All’s Well That Ends Well interests me more than either play does on its own. The two plays call to one another in the figure of a central female protagonist pursuing an unrequited love, determined to make a heaven of hell. They even share a name: Helena.
One could argue that this parallel, though striking, is insignificant. After all, Shakespeare repeated names throughout the canon, and unrequited affection is one of the basic building blocks of romantic plot. But if that were all, I doubt Midsummer and All’s Well would have stayed so rich an investigation as to seduce me into directing both at once.
Midsummer Helena wins Demetrius with the aid of Oberon, the fairy King; All’s Well Helena wins Bertram by curing the King of France. Although All’s Well is far more frank in the nakedly transactional nature of the betrothal, the unions in both plays are problematic. Midsummer Helena is unaware of Oberon’s intervention, granting her an innocence All’s Well Helena lacks. Yet as Demetrius leaves the woods with the love juice still in his eye, he is as manipulated into the play’s happy finale as Bertram.
Sympathizing with Demetrius and Bertram, how can one love Helena? Easily. Both characters are charming in the fervor of their passions and keenness of their intellects. Neither means to harm anyone and both set out within the confines of their circumstances to set things right. Midsummer Helena may prove the more admirable as she gives up her Demetrius while All’s Well Helena forces her husband’s hand through a bed trick, which though a despicable act makes for a wondrous (and ridiculous) conclusion to the fairytale.
Feeling firm in the conviction that the two plays shared a spine, my imagination turned to what it meant for Shakespeare to have returned to this examination of unrequited love. I say return as scholars commonly date Midsummer as penned at some point between 1594 to 1597 and All’s Well as 1602 to 1606. Did Shakespeare see by making the first Helena an unknowing beneficiary of Oberon’s magic he had side-stepped a potent ethical quandary? Did he want to revisit the subject of choosing love by another’s eyes in the context of an aging court?
In pursuit of that question, enamored of both plays and their inhabitants, I find myself in rehearsals for both plays. Juggling the two has turned out to be one of the most joyous experiences I have ever had in the theater. I feel a bit like Puck when Lysander and Helena enter the part of the wood where Demetrius lies sleeping: “Then will two at once woo one / That must needs be sport alone / And those things do best please me / That befall preposterously.” Something preposterous runs contrary to reason or common sense, and directing two shows on a shoe string budget in eight weeks’ time is at first blush an absurd undertaking. It’s a big risk.
It’s also one I now plan to undertake again. The joy of directing two plays in rep is that it transforms the experience from that of directing a cast to directing a company. The investment is different as all actors step into leading and supporting roles. The multiplicity of scenes and combinations of partners means almost everyone takes a turn with almost everyone else, as opposed to the pattern of most plays where an actor gets to the end of rehearsal and realizes they have only played with about half the ensemble. And then there is the infinite reward of exploring each play in its own right and in its relation to the other.
We have two and a half more weeks of rehearsal to refine this madness for your pleasure, then three weeks of performances to share. Hope to see you there!