William Shakespeare’s fantastical romantic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream always emanates from a magical realm, and now, Tacoma Arts Live’s (TAL) rendition of this classic piece invites its audience to experience a combination of Hawaiian and Puerto Rican Boricua culture.
Deanna Martinez directs Shakespeare’s romp, in which two couples from Athens run off to the forest, where a fairy named Puck causes mischief for both them and for the fairy queen. “Midsummer is a very approachable text,” Martinez said. “I’m excited for this immersive production which pushes the boundaries of theatre-making.”
Martinez proposed a Hawaiian theme to TAL’s Managing Director David Fischer. “I immediately knew I would want to explore the most utopian gardens of my life, the beautiful islands of Hawaii,” she said. “I’m always looking for ways to increase representation of the Global Majority onstage, and this opportunity to pitch any interpretation of Midsummer provided the perfect vehicle to highlight my family’s culture.”
This idea dovetailed with TAL’s ongoing Utopian Garden 300-degree surround art-projection exhibit. “The idea was to present a Shakespeare in the Park-style experience, with the park being this digital space and the actors putting on the show amongst the patrons,” Martinez explained. “I hope that patrons will sense the spirit of aloha, and feel so immersed that they come out feeling like they were on a two-hour trip to the Islands.”
As a Boricua-Hawaiiana descendant of plantation workers brought from Puerto Rico to Hawaii, Martinez interweaves both of these lenses. “My family were plantation workers from Puerto Rico and worked sugar cane and pineapple beginning in the turn of the 20th-century, up through my own father, who picked pineapple for Dole,” she said. “My own upbringing, including dancing in halaus, hearing menehune stories, eating traditional foods, and all of the other parts of culture that is absorbed naturally, were the primary inspiration.”
While there are no fairies in Hawaiian storytelling, Martinez was influenced by the academic writings of Blase Souza and the compilations of Hawaiian stories by Mary Kawena Puku’i. “Adapting Shakespeare’s Greek-inspired magical folk into Hawaiian-inspired menehune was one of my greatest learnings,” Martinez said of the fantastical people of Polynesia. “Focusing on the trickster-whimsy of the menehune, making them a wingless community of workers, was the approach. This is much different than the traditional approach: As balletic, winged, graceful beings.”
Exploring the attributes of Pele, Hi’iaka, and Maui to parallel the Greek gods in Shakespeare’s text, Martinez partnered with Cultural Costuming and Movement Consultant Kumu Kanoe Galiza. “Kumu Kanoe has been an indispensable resource for cultural understanding and accuracy,” Martinez enthused. “She helped show the facets of Hawaiian culture I wanted to highlight, from the stiff, colonized Victorian costumes of the Royals, to the modern aloha-shirt wearing modern Lovers, to the very traditional magical folk in their pa’u and malu.”
Galiza’s knowledge has been incorporated from the opening of the prologue. “As the actors enter the space, they do so to the beating of an ipu heke and to the sounds of chant,” Martinez said. “The actors incorporate movements learned from her in their poetic monologues.”
These choices resonated with actors Samantha Chung, who portrays Titania and Hippolyta, and Roycen Daley, who plays Demetrius. “Hearing Deanna’s vision at callbacks was powerful, authentic, and affirming for me as an actor,” Chung said. “I have been preparing for this production by reading about Ira Aldridge, listening to Haunani-Kay Trask, incorporating physical training, and reminding myself that Shakespeare is open to all cultures and identities.”
Daley has enjoyed working with Martinez on past productions. “Us both being multi-racial Hawaiians, she reached out to me about this production she was doing saying she needed her local Hawaiians,” he recalled. “Sure enough, that got me to investigate, but what really drew me was just the unique nature of this show.”
This production, for Daley, is also his people’s story. “A lot of my prep has been tapping into my roots, remembering where I’m from and the culture, but also taking the time to explain the various nuances of the culture to some of my castmates,” he explained. “It’s amazing how much cast bonding can happen when you’re trying to explain the importance of Heineken to Hawaiian culture!”
Chung experienced similar bonding. “How saturated the rehearsal environment is with collaboration, support, and levity,” she beamed. “Everyone adds to each other in rehearsals, I am certain it will continue to deepen and grow in performances.”
Both actors find this teamwork crucial to their performances. “My biggest goal is to make Demetrius a character that can be somewhat relatable,” Daley said. “It’s really easy to hate this character, he seems mean all the time for no reason!”
But Daley is digging deeper to reflect the challenges of life on a Pacific island. “There’s this ‘Hawaiian paralysis’ that happens to people that were raised in the islands, who tend to live, work, and die on the island without ever really thinking about what they truly want to achieve with their lives,” he said. “Demetrius is just trying to do what’s right, marry the woman he’s supposed to, climb the social ladder, have the life Hermia’s father imagined for him.”
While Daley honors Demetrius’s journey to self-discovery, Chung aims to honor her Native Hawaiian ancestors who were present on Oahu and Hawaii before European colonizers arrived on the islands. “I am pursuing liberation through the artistic practice of theatre,” Chung said. “This looks like working on theatre projects that center historically excluded people, specifically Global Majority folx, with projects that dismantle white supremacy.”
As opening night approaches, all three artists report high spirits and deep fulfillment, literally embodying a dream of liberation in midsummer.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs from August 17 to September 3 at Tacoma Arts Live, Tacoma Armory, 1001 South Yakima Avenue, Tacoma.