In Hank Rogerson and Jilann Spitzmiller’s intriguing documentary “Still Dreaming,” residents of an Actors Fund retirement home put on a play under the aegis of two young New York directors. The play is “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and before long the world of the nursing home and Shakespeare’s enchanted forest begin to mirror each other in disquieting ways, as mental and physical disabilities, rather than fairy spells, shift time and sow confusion. Yet the play also reawakens and reconnects these thespians to each other and to the most vital parts of their past. Arthouse play, though merited, is probably a long shot.
In 2005’s “Shakespeare Behind Bars,” the filmmakers staged “The Tempest,” with its themes of redemption and forgiveness, in a maximum-security prison. Here they tackle “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” with its all-too-relevant specters of confusion and identity loss, in a nursing home.
At first glance, aside from the obvious physical limitations evinced by all the walkers, canes and wheelchairs, the residents of the Lillian Booth Actors Home in New Jersey seem a relatively “together” bunch, and casting initially presents no problems. This is particularly true of two of its denizens, introduced before the official theatrics even begin. Broadway song-and-dance veteran Charlotte Fairchild, whose energetic enthusiasm fairly effervesces, seems born to play Puck, and her sung refrains are a high point of rehearsals. On a darker note, Dimo Condos practically incarnates Oberon, wandering the woods admiring “nature’s art” in the textures of decaying wood and mushroom gills, and bemoaning the vagaries of fate. Others in the cast appear equally well suited to their roles.
But appearances, as the Bard well knew, can be deceiving. Halfway through rehearsals, it is mentioned in passing that Fairchild suffers from Alzheimer’s, and indeed she misses her singing cue in the actual performance. Condos’ passionate commitment to the play leads him to try to take over direction, overzealously prodding the other players to greater efforts, leading to an angry confrontation with actual directors Ben Steinfeld and Noah Brody, who lean toward a more supportive approach.
As physical and mental limitations make themselves felt, cast members drop out, replaced by impromptu stand-ins with little or no acting experience — or, in one case, of the wrong gender. A particularly talented performer suddenly declares she is leaving the home, a statement that proves to be a recurrent but stubborn delusion. “I just feel like we’re operating on nine or 10 realities in this room at any given time,” bemoans Steinfeld, hastily adding, “but that’s all right.” Curiously, however, all this uncertainty and the constant casting changes gift the production with an antic spontaneity and madcap giddiness that belie the age of the performers and intensify the atmosphere of the play.
A similar ambiguity affects the play’s setting, as the filmmakers fill “Still Dreaming” with evocative images of the woodland surrounding the home. They open on shots of flora (familiar and strange) and fauna (including a stately egret and a dainty fawn), and the woods echo with disembodied passages from the play. Later, the more ambulatory actors roam among the grass and trees, declaiming their lines. Thus, although the play is performed indoors in the same room where rehearsals took place, the memory trace of the insistent outdoor imagery overlays the proceedings until Shakespearean Nature virtually invades the theater space.