The word “hip” is not one many of us would associate with Shakespeare, but The New York Times and other reviewers have used it to describe Aquila Theatre’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” coming to Cal Poly tonight.
Peter Meineck, founder and artistic director of Aquila Theatre, doesn’t really like the term, but he understands why it is used, he said in an interview from his New York headquarters.
“I think it defines making Shakespeare cool and relevant, that it means just enjoying a really good show. We don’t change the language, but our goal is to free the spirit of the original.”
If the term “hip” brings more people into the theater, that’s good, he added. “The best culture should be enjoyable.”
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A more academic term used to describe Aquila’s goal is “theatrical utilitarianism.” Meineck explains that idea as making the greatest works accessible to the greatest number of people.
The word “accessibility” may imply a sense of elitism, he said, “but we’re not dumbing it down. We just want to give access to the greatest number.”
The touring company travels the country, presenting 60 or more shows each season, about 60 percent in downtown theaters and 40 percent in educational venues. Their style is designed to “unleash the power of the language and create a concept of the joy of the actors.” They emphasize the characters rather than big sets and elaborate costumes, Meineck said.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is one of the Bard’s most fanciful romantic comedies, so it lends itself to Aquila’s high-spirited style. It deals with love and its complications in an enchanted forest, and political strife in the forest as well as in the Athenian court.
Ken Sabbatin directs the seven actors in the ensemble, from 22 to nearly 60 years old, who portray more than 20 characters in the play. Meineck describes them as ambidextrous.
“Lean and mean, they are artistic commandos,” he said. “This is amazing ensemble work.”
The costumes and sets have a “hip 1950s feel,” he said. “There’s that word again.”
The actors make changes in costumes and identities, sometimes right before your eyes. There’s a lot of artistry and mechanics involved. All of the actors are polished and classically trained, some at the Royal Shakespeare Company. They are all British, although one is from Jamaica, another from Ghana, and one a Scot. That represents the London population mix, Meineck said.
The company was founded in London in 1991 and has been based in New York since 1999. Aquila looks for actors grounded in Shakespeare, who can express feeling, poetry and technique.
“We have been able to find polished, experienced actors who want to come to America,” he said.
The response while touring America is different from that in Europe, he noted. “Here audiences relate culture to politics, to what is happening around them.”
Meineck is associate professor of classics and ancient studies at New York University. He recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for $800,000 for a touring project to relate ancient Greek drama to modern lives.
“That makes Shakespeare contemporary,” he said.
A free pre-performance lecture will be presented by a member of the company at 6:30 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center’s Philips Recital Hall.
“This will give people the opportunity to get clued into the production,” Meineck said. “We want people not to be intimidated by the idea of Shakespeare, but to make it a lot of fun.”