Local Theater Company Fuses The Bard with Pandemic World in Unique Production
To many, the last year or so has felt like a surreal fantasy world—long trips down the virtual rabbit hole of online classes or meetings, empty streets walked by lone masked figures desperate to avoid other people, rising conflict between strange forces both far and near. Drawing these elements from 2020 and 2021, FUSE Theatre company this week is debuting a unique performance piece that marries the bizarre world in which we now live with one of history’s perennial comedic tales: Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The cast of Madison, Guilford, and more distant actors will re-imagine the story in a virtual setting as a musical, where faeries control the Internet and lovers swoon on Zoom calls.
“It’s an hour and 48 minutes of very tight, very dynamic, colorful, eye-popping, even a little bit trippy storytelling,” said FUSE Theatre founder and Artistic Director Lara Morton. “So we’re really excited and we’re really proud. It was a totally collaborative venture; every single voice was fully heard and respected.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: The Rewired Musical, as Morton has named the play, which is not being performed live, but instead will be available for video-on-demand screenings starting on Friday, May 21, is a culmination of a substantial amount of work, incorporating both teen and adult actors and professional editors and musicians and using plenty of creative problem-solving, according to Morton, who said the onset of the pandemic catalyzed an artistic piece that, like the last year or so, is truly unprecedented.
“There were moments when I questioned it, like, ‘What are we doing?’” Morton laughed. “But there was a certain...space I kept going back to. This show wants to exist, it wants to be born into the world.”
After a nearly completed production of Lion King Jr. created by Morton had to be essentially shuttered April 2020, with the cast filming a socially distanced version but unable to perform or show it to anyone, Morton said she began almost immediately dreaming up something that could fit not only into the practical strictures of the pandemic, but made sense thematically as well.
Pushing Shakespeare’s star-crossed romantic comedy into a virtual world, where characters meet in online video games instead of in castles and stumble through Zoom meetings instead of enchanted forests ended up accomplishing both of these things, according to Morton, allowing actors to work without risking their health through the long winter and capturing some of the specific strangeness of the last year.
That meant making sure that disparate experiences were represented, considering how differently the pandemic impacted people based on age, race, sex, employment, and so many other factors.
“One of the best parts about this show was it was very much a group effort,” said Sylvia Sonnenstein, who plays Helena. “They took a lot of [the young actor’s] ideas and they were able to work with us...and took our ideas and used our knowledge of our generation and incorporated that into the show.”
“What makes this one so not ‘cringey’ is that it’s so cool—the visuals you get are really neat to look at. And it’s being done in such a different way than I’ve seen done before,” said Norah Stotz, who plays Titania.
Morton recruited Lydia Arachne, a local musician who specializes in multi-instrumental compositions; Noah Golden, a filmmaker who has edited and produced videos at Yale for most of the last decade; and Jake Egan O’Hara, a costume designer who has dressed both Broadway and Tik Tok stars, to provide the technical chops for the unique production.
“The continuity of concept is so tight,” Morton said. “And the music that Lydia wrote—first of all, it’s all 100 percent Shakespeare text...and her influences range from Santana to Peter Gabriel to Elton John.
“It’s really something,” she added.
But doing the actual filming remained a tremendous challenge, with actors living in Madison, Guilford, and Stratford- and a couple as far away as Massachusetts, according to Morton. Though they used a lot of virtual mediums and green screens, occasionally actors had to get together in-person, finding times to film in small groups as COVID lockdowns tightened.
Morton described one time when a few cast members drove from the shoreline almost 100 miles north up to Massachusetts, and then had their filming location lose power.
“We’re just all sitting there in the dark,” Morton laughed. “There’s certain things you just can’t anticipate.”
Despite the fact that it wasn’t a traditional play—no big rehearsals, no daily gatherings or pizza wrap-parties—the play’s young actors said they felt they had indeed been given the opportunity to have the experience of working on a play even during the pandemic.
“There’s still that sense of community with everyone,” said Sonnenstein. “We’re still a cast and we’re still a show, even though we’re filming all of our stuff separately. We’re still together in the sense that this is our piece.”
Noah Sonenstein, who plays Oberon, said that it was still an odd feeling to put together a play in this disconnected way, but that didn’t prevent the production from being what it aspired to be.
“It was still an amazing experience, and a very new experience,” he said. “It was neat to be in a place that you couldn’t see.”
Morton said it actually took a little bit of convincing for the cast to buy into the premise and the needs of the production, and spend even more time thinking about and working in these virtual spaces that they already spent countless hours in for school, and in other parts of their lives.
“They’re on it all day long,” Morton said. “They’re virtual for their driving lessons, they’re virtual for their dance classes...and they were sort of done with it. And I said, ‘You got to trust me. In the end, it’s going to be worth it.’”
Hopefully, over the next few months, the theater scene across the country can begin looking toward to more traditional productions, though hybrid, pandemic-driven endeavors like this one are likely to change perceptions around theater and open up new avenues in the industry, with Morton saying she hopes FUSE’s efforts make some waves across the region (one school has already “signed on” to use the production next year).
“Musicals are stereotypically more of a simple or a kids thing, and of course that’s been proven wrong many times,” said Harper Hellerman, who plays Puck. “And Shakespeare is stereotypically...the old stuffy boring thing you read in English class. And this production brings those two things together to make something new.”
As faeries hack live-streams and characters spar across FaceTime, Morton added that she hopes that viewers can find a little bit of humor in the pain, loss, and surreal virtual landscape of the last year, a landscape that can be described both through the musings of the Bard, as well as the technological follies of 2020 and 2021.
“The idea [is] that rather than pretend that we’re not on Zoom, or we’re not telling this story virtually, we’re going to use that to our advantage,” Morton said.
For more information on FUSE Theatre and A Midsummer Night’s Dream: The Rewired Musical, including tickets, visit www.fusetheatrect.org.