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Mekong Midsummer 

by Michael Bowen


Juliet's parents do it. King Lear does it. Even Hermia's father in A Midsummer Night's Dream does it: They insist on deciding whom their daughters will marry.


Today, students roll their eyes at the idea of arranged marriages in Shakespeare. ("Yeah, like I'm really gonna let my dad decide that.") But what if Egeus' insistence that his daughter marry Demetrius and not Lysander is performed by actors from a nation in which arranged marriages are still part of the culture? A place like Vietnam.


"It's a big issue over there," says Allen Nause, artistic director of Portland-based Artists Repertory Theatre. "Families are very strong, the approval of parents is very strong. It's very important for Vietnamese women to get married by a certain age -- 22 or 23. And yet more and more opt to go to college or pursue a career. There's a lot of conflict."


Nause should know: He led his troupe to Vietnam four years ago to present a touring version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in a co-production with the Central Dramatic Company of Vietnam. Now, as part of the National Endowment of the Arts' nationwide Shakespeare in American Communities project, Artists Rep and the Vietnamese troupe are once again touring the show -- this time, Stateside, and with English rather than Vietnamese supertitles. Translations are necessary because a half-dozen of the leading roles and much of Shakespeare's dialogue is spoken in Vietnamese.


In the production -- which just kicked off the Artists Rep season and is now touring six western states from Hawaii to Wyoming -- the Vietnamese actors punctuate some of their lines in English, and the American actors return the favor. The language barrier is featured in other ways as well. When Titania stomps away from her husband Oberon, he curses her in Vietnamese. When Demetrius wants to lie down nearer to Hermia, they briefly converse in Vietnamese, lending more intimacy to the young lovers' moment.


At the Vietnamese actors' suggestion, Nause turned Titania's lyrical speech about the disruption in the natural cycles caused by the fairies' quarrel ("These are the forgeries of our jealousy") into a song.


Nause is excited about the new look of the current production (with more emphasis on traditional Vietnamese costumes, and with Lysander and Helena, played by white actors, as outsiders in a predominately Vietnamese court). But "what really works for me," he says, "is the traditional Vietnamese music. We have three musicians onstage all the time, from the classical theater there. They function almost like a chorus."


Any unusual instruments?


"They're all unusual," says Nause. "There's one that's like a banjo, but with two strings that are plucked. It has no frets, so you can experience the full range -- half-notes, quarter-notes and everything in between. There's a two-string violin that makes the most amazing sounds."


Then, Nause adds, there are the Vietnamese drums and flutes and "a reed instrument, very much like an oboe, that makes high, whining sounds."


Freaky noises support the supernatural mood of the Athenian woods. Nause notes that in Vietnamese folklore, "their fairies are very mischievous and fun-loving." That's why in this show, Puck has four followers to inject additional slapstick into the frolicking of the four mismatched lovers. "In the forest scene," says Nause, "when Puck is throwing his voice, they become tricksters." Like Puck to the fourth power, the extra Vietnamese hobgoblins will inject some chaos into the proceedings, reminding us that "the course of true love never did run smooth."


Neither did the original version of this production, as viewers will see on Friday night when Tom Weidlinger's film, A Dream in Hanoi, is screened at the Panida. "The first U.S. documentary about U.S./Vietnamese relations that does not focus on the war," A Dream in Hanoi recounts the cultural differences on display when two theater companies from distinct cultures attempt to co-produce a classic play.


Nause's Vietnamese co-director insisted on pruning Shakespeare's text quite a bit. There were disagreements over how much of the budget would go to musicians or to Puck's sidekicks. The Vietnamese actors thought the Americans worked too hard during rehearsals. Government censors -- and a near-visit by President Bill Clinton -- disrupt the production. And then there was a minor scandal involving the conflict between the Vietnamese "culture of shyness" and the Americans' flamboyant look-at-me attitudes. Would Lysander kiss Hermia, violating a local taboo? (In the end, they smooched.)


The tours continue. As part of the NEA's program, seven professional nonprofit theaters are touring Shakespeare plays; the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, for example, brought Macbeth to 13 military bases. Just beginning is Phase Two, in which 22 theaters will present Shakespeare plays to students in all 50 states; according to the project's Web site, acting troupes will visit schools in 15 North Idaho towns next March and April.


Nause happily recalls the experience in 2000. "When we toured Vietnam," he says, "the audiences didn't know the plot, but they just hung on every word. It's just so gratifying when the actors work so hard and then they nail the laugh in Vietnamese."





Publication date: 10/28/04

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