In the Folger Theatre’s contemporary twist on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon isn’t just the prototypical King of the Fairies. He also represents the other type of fairy — and today’s more common type of queen. As in “Yass, Queen!”
“In the costuming and the way that I’m portraying Oberon,” says actor Rotimi Agbabiaka, “he is very much on a gender spectrum, as someone who is fluid in his gender expression. As a fairy should be, I imagine. He’s not a super masculine figure. As the King of the Fairies, I think it’s appropriate that he…wears a big pink skirt and platform leather heels.”
Oberon glams and hams it up with encouragement from the show’s principal queen, Titania, the Queen of the Fairies. That character is also being portrayed with a degree of gender fluidity, such that, if anything, Agbabiaka notes, there are “two queens and two kings” on stage.
“I think both are very fluid,” he says. “I’m not necessarily fixed in one gender, and I think Nubia Monks, who plays Titania, [has a] kind of strength you might think of as masculine. So we’re playing all the dimensions of a fairy king and queen.”
A Nigerian-born, Houston-raised, San Francisco-based theater artist, Agbabiaka cites a wide, wild mix of sources that have informed his portrayal of Oberon — starting with his eclectic mix of stage work over the past dozen years as a professional actor and emerging playwright.
“I’ve gotten the chance to perform all over the country and all over the world doing a variety of things,” he says. “Shakespeare, classics, new work, drag, my own work that I’ve written — performances and full-length plays. As a queer person, I do a lot of work that plays with gender, or that involves maximalism and glamour and amazing costumes.”
Agbabiaka was geared up for a Bay Area production of The Rocky Horror Show when the pandemic hit, ultimately causing that show’s cancellation.
As a result, “I would say there’s some influence from Rocky Horror, of all places,” he says. “Once I got the heels on for this role, I think — especially in the scenes where Oberon is falling in love with and seducing Bottom — I sprinkled in a little bit of Dr. Frank-N-Furter.”
He also credits the “energy and spirit” of ballroom culture in general for helping inspire his portrayal. And he chuckles when acknowledging another, unexpected influence: Dame Judy Dench. “She’s definitely one person who just sort of has this stateliness when she plays queens and royalty. And so I think she’s in there somewhere.”
All of that adds up to a remarkable performance and an impressive D.C. debut for the performer, who had previously worked with the show’s director, Victor Malana Maog, in a production of Macbeth at the California Shakespeare Theater.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream features three distinct but overlapping subplots. The play’s action is chiefly driven by the mischievous fairy Puck, whose wanton, ham-handed use of a magic love potion induces arbitrary passion among select characters to great madcap effect.
Traditionally, Titania is Puck’s primary target, and after he sprinkles her with love juice from a magical flower, she falls madly in love with the workman, Bottom, whose head Puck has transformed into that of a donkey. Here, though, director Maog flips the script.
“Oberon is the person who gets the love juice between their eyes and falls in love with Bottom,” explains Agbabiaka. “So one of the things we’re playing with is just the idea of who can you love? Could you even fall for an ass like Bottom?
“[The play shows] the different kinds of love, the different ways in which people can fall in love, the different pairings that can happen,” he continues.
“We’re queering things up, but I would say that Shakespeare has always been queer. He wrote love sonnets to men, and in his day, all of these roles would be played by men. So there was always [love between] boys, or by male-identified actors. And so it’s always been that sort of subversion and gender play.”
Another notable aspect of Folger’s production is that it’s a truncated version of the typically three-hour play, performed in half the time with no intermission.
“It’s nice to be doing a 90-minute version, short and sweet,” Agbabiaka says. “It gives the highlights in a really wonderful way. It’s a version that those people who haven’t heard the story before will still understand it and love it and enjoy it. I’m really happy to be doing something that’s so accessible and so fun…. I love that you get to go to another world when you come see our show.”
The Folger Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs to Aug. 28 at The Playhouse at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. Tickets are $20 to $85. Visit www.folger.edu or call 202-544-7077.
To learn more about Rotimi Agbabiaka, visit www.rotimionline.com.
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