It’s a tale of romance, magical fairies and faraway kingdoms, where love triangles run rampant in a forest full of secrets. But it’s the 1960s?

JMU’s School of Theatre and Dance premiered its production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to a nearly sold-out house Tuesday evening at the Mainstage Theatre. It was the theater department’s first production for a full audience and without wearing masks on stage since the 2019-20 academic year.

“It was so amazing and felt so freeing to be back on the stage again,” senior theatre major Maddie Thomas said. “It was really nice to do what I love again and be around the thing that makes me so happy.”

A modern take on a classic

Director Oliver Mayes was brought onto the production over the summer and has spent much of his career directing, including at the University of South Dakota. He said he enjoys working with Shakespearean plays because of the creativity involved and the chance to interpret the story in a modern context.

“I want to give audiences that visceral feeling,” Mayes said. “Although viewers may not understand every word we’re saying, they can still connect with the story regardless.”

The storyline follows three subplots, all mingling within one another — the lovers and the triangles they create with each other; the artisans preparing a play for the Duke’s wedding; and the Fairy Band creating mischief throughout it all. The plots all seem to be disconnected at the beginning of the play, but as the tale unfolds, the characters interact with one another and make decisions that affect the other stories — thus creating a chaotic and comical result.

In this production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the modern interpretation comes in the setting. As opposed to the typical Renaissance-era fantasy, Mayes said he chose to set the play in the 1960s because it “reflects a lot of the issues of that decade.” Some may consider the thought jarring, but the similarities in character structure and the modern time help explain the storyline to those unfamiliar.

Contrasting the modern setting, the language of the play is still spoken in traditional Shakespearean writing with only a few modifications to clarify plot points to the audience. Mayes said it was a personal choice to keep this element, wanting to ground the script in the original story as much as possible.

“There are a couple word changes so that it fits within our production, but that’s it,” Mayes said. “It’s all Shakespeare’s words. We’re just making sense of this crazy, poetic text set in the modern 1960s setting.”

The combination of the original text and the modern time frame are meshed together as the show progresses. Although confusing at first glance, the similarities in motifs from both time periods create an even balance, accompanied by an open set for the viewer’s imagination to grow.  

When walking into the Mainstage Theatre, the sense of something magical flows through the audience. A simple yet shimmering set covers the entire stage — but as the story progresses, it becomes more complex, including elevated trees and moving platforms. Mayes said he wanted the design to be “compatible both as a forest and in a modern city.”

Setting the stage

Simplicity throughout the production’s technical elements helps bring out the vibrant performances by the cast. The Fairy Band and artisans helm a larger role early on in the show, and the chemistry between both groups aids the storytelling and the comedic lines. The energetic artisan Bottom, performed by junior Mitch Glaes, and the mischievous fairy Puck, played by senior music captain Carter Crosby, help create some of the show’s most comedic moments. 

Additional standouts include Thomas’ performance as Hermia, providing a spirited and youthful portrayal of the young lover, and junior theatre major Gavin Kiley’s performance as Theseus. Kiley said that this show is his first theater production and that he feels the “bar’s been set really high,” both in Mayes’ direction and the overall experience.

Each character has their moment to shine, especially once the three subplots intertwine in the second act. As the lovers are spellbound through the Fairy Band’s games, the once pristine characters turn into chaos, culminating in a fight between Helena (Joshua Higgins) and Hermia (Thomas) over Lysander (Mason Jett) and Demetrius (Abel Haddish). 

The traditional love triangle between the four includes a modern gender swap by Higgins — a personal choice by Mayes. The change from a female Helena to male allows Mayes to include an LGBTQ romance in the story, adding to the modern retelling. In Shakespeare’s time, the idea would’ve been absurd. However, 1969 is historically considered a major year in the LGBTQ movement, as the Stonewall Riots took place that summer — proving to be another layer of Mayes’ connections between the Renaissance and now.

“Throughout the story, we see the lovers fighting for maybe more than just love,” Mayes said. “One couple is a queer couple by the end of the show.”

The gender change didn’t change the pronouns in the dialogue. And, terms such as “temptress” and “beauty” are also used to describe Helena. Mayes said he chose this as a way to refute the more conservative aspects of Shakespeare’s story and what could be considered a stereotype in the professional theater world.

“My work automatically comes through my lens, so with stories like Shakespeare, we have the chance to mess with the storylines a little bit,” Mayes said. “We’ve switched some roles to have some woman empowerment while we’re still commenting on the patriarchy in the show.”

The balance within the costuming pays homage to the fantastical wardrobe across the two time periods as well. When the rulers Theseus and Hippolyta (Amanda Willis) come on stage, the business professional attire describes their flamboyant lifestyle, compared to Bottom and Flute as the artisans and the fairy band, who dress in a colorful style.

“The whole mystical aspect of it with all the fairies, we wanted to keep at the style Shakespeare intended it to,” Kiley said. “But, it’s been really fun to balance it all with the summer of 1969 theme and how they go together.”

While typical Shakespeare productions are solely spoken word, Mayes included musical elements within the soliloquies of the Fairy Band. Crosby, for example, plays the guitar, and Oberon, played by Maleek Hill, and Titania, played by Diana Afriye-Opoku, sing. All members of the Fairy Band corps also have a percussive instrument. The inspiration for the sound design came from indigenous peoples, as stated in the pre-show introduction. 

Mayes said he allowed for the cast to have a free interpretation of the characters, and the effects of it are seen in each cast members’ eyes during the performance and when the three plots come full circle as the story closes. 

“We have these groups that just make up the major plotlines, and there’s constantly beautiful work going on,” Mayes said. 

Creation through collaboration

What makes the show flow so well? Mayes said he put a larger emphasis on collaborating with each member of the cast and crew throughout the process as a way to get additional perspectives. 

“I pride myself in being a collaborative director,” Mayes said. “But I think because I’m someone who asks more questions rather than just gives answers … it’s a big part of my directing style and has really influenced this production.”

The concept of a guest director coming to the cast and crew for collaboration is fairly unheard of, particularly in college productions. While stage manager Juleanna Green said it was a little startling at first, she welcomed the change and said it’s part of what made her experience so special. 

“It was so fascinating to see because there was collaboration in every aspect,” Green said. “It was something I’ve never seen before. He made it clear it was going to be that level of collaboration with the cast, and that’s how it was going to be in all aspects in this show.” 

Mayes included his collaboration with the cast and character development through blocking. While creating movement during the rehearsal process, the actors voiced their input on how each character could move and react to one another, which in turn helped authenticate the performances to the audience.

In addition, every on-stage decision during both rehearsals and performances is fluid and can be changed to give the audience a slightly different show every performance. To some, the changes are small enough to go unnoticed. But a simple added emphasis or a lingering touch can be all it takes to make a performance stand out — and it further displays the trust the cast shares with one another.

“Everyone is so giving and bold and supportive of each other,” Mayes said. “I’m giving them a little more power than maybe they’re used to, but they’ve been very responsive about it.”

Remembering opening night

On Tuesday’s opening performance, the Mainstage Theatre was packed, with audience members spilling into the balcony level. Three hours later, guests nearly leapt out of their seats to give a standing ovation to the 22-person cast.

Looking around the house, people cried with laughter, seeming to hang on every word. Once the show ended, the entire cast was beaming as they were greeted by family and friends, high on the joy of opening the show.

“We could feel the anticipation of our actions and words from the audience throughout the show,” Thomas said. “We just wanted to give that back to them and show our excitement in the craziness of the show.”

The Mainstage Theatre has four additional performances of Mayes’ production, with the show closing Sunday afternoon. Thursday-Saturday’s performances begin at 8 p.m., and Sunday’s closing performance is scheduled for 2 p.m. Students can purchase tickets online or at the door — $12 for students and $18 for general admission. 

This fresh take on one of Shakespeare’s most popular works isn’t only refreshing but entertaining, and the audience can see the story flow smoothly thanks to the cast’s strong connection. The chemistry throughout the cast proves to be the best aspect of the show, and the collective risks made in each performance pay off.

“This has been great for us because we’ve gotten the chance to really see the bonding with everyone onstage,” Green said. “We’re getting the chance to interact with each other in ways we haven’t in a very long time, and it’s been amazing.” 

CORRECTION (10.15, 7:23 p.m.): The original version of this story stated that Oliver Mayes has been directing since graduate school. However, Mayes has directed since before his time in graduate school. The original version of this story stated that Gavin Kiley is junior musical theatre major. However, Kiley is a junior theatre major. The original version of this story stated that the musical selections were inspired by native tribes. However, it's the sound design that was inspired by indigenous peoples. In the original version of this story, a gender change was mislabeled as a "gender swap," instead of a "gender change." 

Contact Madison Hricik at breezesports@gmail.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.