‘We few, we happy few’: Small-cast Shakespeare

A small-cast Shakespeare performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream
Ryan Wilson as Peaseblossom, Jessie Lillis as Bottom, Kat Quiñones as Titania, and Tyler Haggard as Mustardseed in the Starling Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Austin Tichenor. Photo by Cody Niederer.

Every so often, Shakespeare extols the power of small. “Brevity is the soul of wit,” from Hamlet, for instance, is one famous example; “Though she be but little, she is fierce” (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and “Small time; but in that small most greatly lived” (from Henry V) are others. I’ve celebrated the virtue of economy for 30 years with the Reduced Shakespeare Company, but this summer I rediscovered the artistic possibilities of a few performers playing multiple roles by directing a five-actor production of Midsummer for Starling Shakespeare Company.

In its second season, Starling’s founding artistic directors Jessie Lillis and Heron Kennedy are producing Midsummer in rep with Macbeth (directed by Benjamin Curns) with only five actors and minimal props and costumes, and touring both shows to ten cities in six states before settling into a month-long residency on Mackinac Island in Michigan in August. Kennedy and Lillis are also two of the cast members, creating opportunities for themselves and others, and centering the work of actors as the driving force in theatrical storytelling.

Small-cast Shakespeare, with fewer actors to pay and house, has distinct economic benefits, and with actors running back and forth quickly switching costumes, lends itself easily to comedy (and in the case of Reduced Shakespeare Company, parody). But there are risks, too, as there’s greater pressure on every actor to be distinct and outstanding as they each carry a larger individual portion of the storytelling burden.

A smaller ensemble, though, is also “incredibly exciting,” according to Scott Jackson, the artistic producer of Actors From The London Stage (AFTLS), a five-person company founded in 1975 in which the performers direct themselves in a Shakespeare play and tour to colleges and universities across the United States, leading classes and workshops wherever they go. Because AFTLS tours without scenery or a backdrop, the actors make their transitions from one character to another in full view of the audience, which, as Jackson explains, “puts the actor’s craft at the center of the audience’s experience. We are doing what Shakespeare asked his audiences to do: use our imagination to fill in the gaps.”

Kennedy and Lillis founded Starling Shakespeare on the AFTLS model, having been taught its methods as part of their MFA training at Mary Baldwin University. But in a departure from AFTLS — and unlike such historical actor-managers as David Garrick, Henry Irving, and Sarah Bernhardt — Starling hires a director for each production, partly from a desire to not stretch themselves too thin, but also as an acknowledgment that they’re a young company that wants to grow and expand their network of artistic collaborators.

Small-cast Shakespeare is inherently as much about the storytellers as the story they’re telling. Midsummer is a tale of transformation and resistance to tyranny, wherein a daughter is threatened with death from her father and the state, and lovers and a group of amateur actors are transformed by magic and their own personal growth. That the play in our case is enacted by five actors similarly transforming into multiple characters is ideal.

Working with the Starling Shakespeare actors also revealed to me how much Midsummer is a celebration of the power of passion and the arts. Bottom struggles to articulate the wonder of the “dream” he had — where he was (that word again) transformed into an ass — and realizes the only possible way of describing it is through Art, which makes him resolve to “get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream.” Theseus’s famous speech about “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet,” (which I reassigned to Hippolyta because at that moment the actor playing Theseus is changing into Helena) is a wonderful articulation of how the poet — and by extension, all artists — bring definition to “airy nothing” by giving them form and shape.

I also had all my actors share the role of Puck, thinking the character’s mischievous and anarchic spirit would best be represented by looking, at various times, like five different people. This was inspired by Christopher Moore, who in his comic novel Shakespeare For Squirrels refers to Robin Goodfellow as “the Puck,” a job title similar to calling Theseus the Duke and Oberon the King. Each actor shares a pair of flower-strewn horns, depending on who’s playing the role at what time, and passes it amongst themselves in both Puck’s opening speech and, most powerfully, their closing speech, where the entire company thanks the audience and sends us on our way, saying their final modified line in unison, “Else we Pucks a liar call / So good night unto you all!”

Rather than doing the classic doubling of Theseus with Oberon and Hippolyta with Titania, the actors playing the Athenian and Amazonian nobles also play Bottom and Flute. Through the magic of double-casting, this gives us the chance to see Theseus and Hippolyta working out their issues while we watch them — or at least the actors playing them — also rehearse their roles as the doomed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe. Similarly, the actors playing Titania and Oberon also play Hermia and Lysander, allowing both actors the opportunity to show multiple sides to two sets of complicated couples, and giving the audience the rare opportunity of seeing Theseus and Hippolyta onstage at the same time as Oberon and Titania, where they can, in a lovely wordless moment, acknowledge each other.

Seeing five actors jump around on the ladder of class, playing young lovers and squabbling nobles and rude mechanicals, also reminds us that we all contain all these roles within us, and that people aren’t — or shouldn’t — be bound by societal barriers, just as actors shouldn’t be typecast into only one kind of role.

There’s no question that I have serious resource envy when I see, for instance, the Bridge Theatre production of Midsummer via NT Live or photos of the Folger’s current production at the National Building Museum (running through August 28). But there is virtue and “grace in all simplicity” when a mere five actors speak Shakespeare’s words without the aid of elaborate sets, beautiful costumes, or mood-setting lights. Intimate actor-driven small-cast Shakespeare is wonderfully hard to beat on a lovely summer’s night.