Shakespeare’s plays have been reinterpreted on stages all over the world, often with modern-day settings, scripts or costumes.
But when College of Charleston theater professor Mark Landis wanted “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to resonate with today’s audiences, he realized he just needed to switch around a few pronouns throughout the script. All the “he’s” changed to “she’s” and voila: a traditional Shakespearean love story featuring two homosexuals who struggle with their identities and acceptance in society.
To understand how this subtle change could make such a resounding impact, let’s revisit the original plot for a moment. In the most general description possible: a young woman named Hermia is told by her father she must marry a man named Demetrius. The problem is, Hermia is in love with another guy, Lysander, and Demetrius is rumored to have had a sexual relationship with Hermia’s best female friend. It meant something to her friend, but Demetrius denies it ever happened.
And in girl code, that basically means Demetrius is the king of all scumbags.
So ultimately, all four of them try to skip town and in the process, they wind up in an enchanted forest where spells and love potions get them all mixed up about who loves whom.
Landis said although the comedy is still one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, the issue of a father’s permission to marry didn’t pack as much punch as it did 400 years ago.
“It just doesn’t seem like something worth fleeing into the forest over,” Landis said.
It would, however, make sense to modern audiences if the characters were reacting to their parents’ or society’s disapproval because they were gay, because that’s the world we still live in.
So, Landis simply switched the sexual orientations of the characters. Hermia’s true love is actually a woman, and her best friend is actually a man. So that means Demetrius had a sexual relationship with another man.
“His previous dalliance with Hermia’s best friend becomes much more serious, and far more important,” Landis said. “If, in fact, there were something going on between the two of them and now Demetrius doesn’t want to admit it because he’s not out and he’s scared, and maybe trying to run from acknowledging his own sexuality ... then, I think, we’ve got a dilemma the audience can understand.”
Now the plot really does seem more enticing, because Landis is right, that fits in the modern paradigm. For me, that’s the most telling part about this.
Take a plot from 400 years ago that would otherwise seem wildly irrelevant to a modern couple, and yet it symbolizes the challenges still facing the lesbian, gay, transgender and homosexual community, especially in the South.
“As we were looking at the original text, and we were imagining these lines coming from somebody of the other gender, it was almost startling the different meaning that they took,” Landis said. “We didn’t have to actually change the text, but saying it in this context does add a layer of meaning that it wouldn’t otherwise have.”
Still, Landis said his goal with this play was the same as with any other play he directs at the college: to teach students about theater, not to make some sort of political statement.
“However, having said that, I did think, along with my colleagues, about the audience of the play,” he said. “If they were able to invest of the dilemma of the plot a little more fiercely, then how do we get to the end of the play feeling like we had earned that happy ending? In that artistic way, we had a cause to take the audience on a journey that would start with this dilemma that’s particular to the modern era, and then still wind up getting them to this romantic, happy ending that celebrated all couples.”
Let’s hope that happy ending will eventually find its way beyond the stage as well.
If you go
What: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Monday-Wednesday ; 3 p.m. on Sunday
Where: Emmett Robinson Theatre in the Simons Center for the Arts, 54 St. Philip St.
Price: $15 for the general public, $10 for senior citizens and College of Charleston students and employees.
More info: 953-5604 or visit www.theatre.cofc.edu.