Traditional tellings of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” take place in the ancient city of Athens, Greece; however, the independent student production in collaboration with Students for Queer Advocacy [SQuAd] of “Love in Idleness” swaps out Greece for Greek life, having the role of the Athenian court filled by a Fraternity/Sorority council, placing Hermia in a sorority and making Demetrius the epitome of a Fraternity boy. The story follows Hermia as the sorority council attempts to prevent her relationship with Lysander and set her up with Demetrius. The setting then swaps to a party, where “fairy” antics ensue in a decidedly sinister manner. Oberon and Puck place mysterious substances into Titania’s drink with the intent to obtain Titania’s dog, also drugging the unwitting Demetrius and Lysander in a failed attempt to right the “love square” between the two, Hermia and her friend Helena.
Co-director Emma Walter ‘24 expressed the reasoning behind choosing to tell “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in this sort of rendition stating, “I had long been fascinated by the fairies of this play and longed for their nefarious nature to be more explored. In talking with Gianna [Carnevalino ‘24], now back at Muhlenberg last spring, she brought up the fact that the play itself was about consent – and they suggested setting it within the college party environment. And from there, we started research. We talked to Nigel Semaj over Zoom and they gave us incredible advice and insight into classical adaptation, Dr. Beatrice Bradley gave us wonderful academic recommendations and Dr. Jeremy Teissere spoke to us about the science behind different party drugs we were considering.”
The play took place in Moyer Hall. Upon entering, participants were asked to choose a glow stick color based on their comfort level with interaction: green for contact and conversation, yellow for conversation and red for neither. Participants were then given a number (one or two) signifying their location for the starting scene. The performance took place on the second and third floors of Moyer (ironically, a sorority formal was underway on the first floor), and crew members led the two groups of audience members to their starting locations. In these rooms, the audience witnessed the introductory scenes of the play, with Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius appearing before the Greek council. The characters engaged in intimate dances underneath a projection of a moon, and the audience was then dismissed to wander the halls of Moyer, where Puck checked their wristbands (glow sticks) and let them into the party.
Walter discussed what went into bringing this experience to life, saying, “Both myself and my co-director, Carnevalino, went abroad to the Theater Academy of London program last fall. While we were there, we both saw ‘The Burnt City’ by the immersive theater company Punchdrunk. The production was a 95 percent pure dance adaptation of the stories of Agamemnon and Hecuba and it was utterly intoxicating.”
It was at this point that the piece became highly individualistic. In one room, the Mechanichorale, a collegiate Acapella group, practiced for their performance at the Greek life philanthropy event, while in another Puck and Oberon formulated a plan to obtain Titania’s dog. In yet another area, Lysander and Hermia discussed keeping their relationship a secret. Multiple tracks of the play occurred at once, so it was impossible to witness every moment. The actors conversed freely with audience members, making asides about how idiotic another character was or, in the case of Titania and Nic Bottom, a Mechanichorale member, asking for an “attendant” to dote on them.
“I had such a great experience during the rehearsal process and the show itself. The directors were fantastic and so ambitious with a great payoff. This was definitely a one of a kind experience and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to perform in immersive theatre,” recounted Isabelle Peters ‘24, who played Lysander.
However, just as the resolution of the play approached, with announcements of love and the “undrugging” of characters, the play began again. This time, participants could witness scenes they had missed before and interact with characters they hadn’t previously met. Ella Zalot ‘27 commented on this, saying, “I think the immersive experience is very entertaining and something you don’t get to experience often. Getting to choose which parts you saw first or second made it unique to every single person.” In my instance, this manifested as a discussion with Puck about how Fraternity life is not a cult and assisting Lysander in his attempts to find Helena.
The play was structured but still left ample room for improvisation on behalf of the actors. While the original lines of Shakespeare were used, there were also more modern injections. For example, Lysander argued with Helena that Demetrius was an asshole, to which she replied “He’s my asshole.” Furthermore, when searching for Lysander, Puck reasoned “Maybe he went through the air ducts.” The Mechanichorale had the greatest room for improvisation, with discussions of a “knitting circle” and allowing members to “live in delulu [delusional] land just a little bit.” They even bestowed great wisdom on the audience when, upon passing out at the party, they explained “napping is very good for vocal health.”
As there were large improvisational sections, the play was different each night. When I attended on Nov. 2, the Mechanichorale spent a longer segment of the play “passed out;” however, later shows got to enjoy a tipsy “bedtime story” from the characters on behalf of the children’s book drive occurring in the hallway. After the play reached the spot where it ended the first time through, the audience was graced with a performance from an a capella group, the Mechanichorale. The a capella group performed in the center stairs of Moyer, climbing on the railings and arousing many laughs from the audience. The final scene of the play featured the whole cast doing a dramatic dance around Oberon and Puck, punishing them for their misdeeds. “Love in Idleness” was so immersive that when the performers walked out, we almost went to follow them. Lillian Palluzzi ‘27, who played Flute, a member of the Mechanichorale, recalled this, stating, “I loved how everyone was confused at the end of the show!” After the performance ended, it was almost a shock to see the actors in the “real world” as they returned to the first floor with a reception of friends and applause.
Walter voiced what she hoped the audience would walk away from the experience with saying, “We wanted the audience to walk away with a darker understanding of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ than it usually does. Shakespeare’s plays, even down to his comedies, have some truly chilling themes. The typical misogyny and racism as is expected, but also this theft of anatomy is rarely if ever discussed.”
Palluzzi went on to explain her experience as a cast member, stating “I’m new to this type of theatre, but it was so fun! The atmosphere was great and everyone was communicative. The directors were peak- so accepting and chill.” Palluzzi mentioned how Muhlenberg hasn’t seen an interactive theatre piece of this magnitude since “Cordially;” hence, the medium was new to many of the cast members– making the piece’s great reception even more commendable. The post-show audience was buzzing with excitement, and Gabriella Damens ‘27 exemplified this experience by commenting, “I’ve never seen anything like it before. It was a really unique experience and I loved how there was a connection between the cast and audience.”
Walter finalized, “We also used the finale as another opportunity to be blatant with establishing who had done the wrong-doing. [Carnevalino]’s vision for it was brilliant and I can’t thank our incredible cast for their collaboration and enthusiasm for the message and execution of this project.”