There are two troupes touring schools in Massachusetts playing shortened versions of Shakespeare's "A MidSummer Night's Dream". One is local, from Shakespeare Now! ; the other a bare-bones production from Lenox's Shakespeare & Company. Each uses a cast of seven, which means a lot of doubling and quick costume changes. The companies use different cut-down versions of the text, each leaving out at least 1/2 hours worth of verse to get down to under 90 minutes running time for school assemblies, but the essential plot outline and order of scenes is intact.
Shakespeare Now! 's production is the more elemental. Costume accessories are changed in plain sight to switch from role to role. Their set is four cubes and four columns with headers. Actors not involved in a scene sit upstage and supply sound effects on occasion. There's a sense of fun to it all.
Shakespeare and Company changes costume offstage in this production, and even changes the set from Athens to the Wood and back. They use two benches and a good number of props, plus recorded sound. Their stage manager, Melanie Mather, is one busy woman backstage. Neither company depends on light cues, which under the right circumstances would enhance either show.
The biggest difference however is in how the parts are doubled, which effects the flow of the scenes and requires different omissions. Shakespeare Now! uses three men and four women; Shakespeare & Co. , four men and three women plus recorded voices for the fairies in several scenes. For SN!, spritely Jessica Burke plays Puck almost exclusively, only doubling as Egeus during the opening scene. In contrast, S&C has Sarah Taylor start as Hippolyta doing sword exercises with Theseus, then becoming Puck in a mask, and then Titania in a translucent farthingale. Puck is her least successful effort, but she manages the changes with facility. SN!'s Jacqueline Therieau plays both Titania and Hippolyta, but gets to clown around as Snout and does a comic turn as "Wall."
In both productions, the same actor plays Theseus and Oberon, a common double even in fully staged productions. However here, each plays one of the rude mechanicals as well. For SN!, Gerard Slattery plays Peter Quince, the author of their play "Pyramus & Thisbe", while Marc Scipione plays Snout up to the actual production. Because Hippolyta and Theseus are watching and commenting, Snout doesn't make it to the palace in time, so Quince plays the part of Wall as well as doing the prologue. SN! has no comments from the sidelines except from Puck, and so six actors appear in their version.
The comic hero of the play is of course Nick Bottom; crowned with an asshead and dying forever as Pyramus. S&C's Mark Wollet plays this part chiefly, but doubles as Egeus several times in a long robe and hat. SN! has David Rabinow play both Bottom and Demetrius, one of the young lovers, and the guitar to accompany the fairy round. S&C's Tom Wells, plays Demetrius as well as Flute, who takes the female role of Thisbe in the mechanicals' play. SN! gets David Skeist, who plays the other young man, Lysander, to play Flute, while S&C's Lysander, Robert Serell, plays Quince in a beret.
In comparison, the two young women, Hermia and Helena are more easily doubled. Elizabeth Wightman, an experienced Shakespeare hand plays SN!'s Helena (the tall one in love with Demetrius) and Starveling aka Moonshine. Yvonne Murphy, the only African-American in either cast plays SN!'s Hermia and also Lion, with a hint of Lion King. For S&C, Candace Clift plays Helena (only not quite tall enough) and Moonshine., while comedienne Tracy Kinney makes a lovable Hermia and an out-of-control Lion.
In both cases, despite the poetry and banter of earlier scenes, the amateur thespians steal the show with their show, using slapstick routines passed down for generations. An entire book could be written about the opportunities for clowning in "Pyramus and Thisbe". Of course some enterprising director would try to use them all.
Each production is not only a respectable introduction to the Bard for young audiences, but quite good enough to satisfy discriminating audiences. In each show, adding one more actor or actress might have facilitated certain transitions and improved the pace, but nothing important is omitted in either., The fun of seeing players switch from role to role makes up for the very basic acting choices required.
For further information about Shakespeare Now! check their website; www.shakespearenow.org