Shakespeare on the Mississippi

posted in: The Arts | 0

The Mississippi Flyway, it’s called–that rather wide band of north-south air traffic from the top of Lake Superior down the Minnesota and Wisconsin watershed to the huge Mississippi delta, including its many tributary deltas like the Yazoo, home of Eudora Welty’s delicious Mississippi creations, starting with her first novel “Delta Wedding.” Last summer, in the agony of the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I watched loons swimming in Lake Superior and hoped against hope that they’d not get fouled by oil in their winter sojourn.

I don’t know much of the Mississippi Flyway south of our northern tier, but I was fascinated a few days ago to find white pelicans congregated on sandbars below the dam at Red Wing where the Mississippi (joined by the Minnesota River at Saint Paul and the Saint Croix at Hastings) spreads out into huge Lake Pepin. We were on our way down the flyway, crossing over the Mississippi at Hastings because of bridge repair to follow the river on the Wisconsin side. Our destination: Winona, Minnesota, named after the Dakota word for “first born girl.”

Views from the Wisconsin side are even more spectacular than from the Minnesota: high bluffs framing bright shining waters, pierced by long tongues of green islands and dividing into various channels–a river glory such as Mark Twain describes in Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi.

Stopping at an artsy town named Stockholm, after its Swedish settlers, we ate incredibly rich pie in two varieties, coconut cream and peanut butter chocolate, giving tongue to Garrison Keillor’s song about “pie, pie, pie,” the Midwestern rural dessert par excellence. Licking our chops, we stood outside a long overhang outside the pie shop and watched swooping parent swallows bringing bugs to their huge family tucked under the eaves: three babies still perched on the nest and two others already hopping a few inches along a supporting beam. “Which are the parents and which the offspring?” one of our party asks, as we can’t immediately tell fledglings from parents. “The babies’ mouths are rimmed with white,” I answered, proud of myself for this observation.

Imagine us as a band of rustics clustered under that rural proscenium, enacting a tale of love and woe, “Pyramus and Thisbe,” based on Ovid’s tale from the Metamorphoses. That tale within a tale we were soon to enjoy in the Great River Shakespeare production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It is my favorite Shakespeare play, partly because it’s set in the summer woods, and its magic is bestowed on the rustics by Oberon, king of the fairies, and his goodfellow Puck. This makes for amorous and amusing entertainment, when Nick Bottom, the weaver, acquires long delicate donkey ears, which the Fairy Queen wakes to adore. By this time, we are stiffling our hilarity to see what magic fairy dust will enact next.

It’s the human love quarter who are next twined and tormented as they race through the woods, only eventually to be set right by Oberon and Puck. Nick’s ears are whisked away and he and his fellow players perform the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, only to have that tragedy of star-crossed lovers pre-empted by “Wall,” a rustic personifying the lovers’ impediment. The players’ seriousness of feeling almost trumps their absurdity. Tears of laughter and something else are running down my cheeks. The rustics are applauded, human lovers joined as they should be, and as we walk out into the night, as balmy as bath water, we hear on the radio that fairy dust has impregnated the stalemate between governor and legislature, and for better or worse, our state government will soon be working again.

All’s Well that Ends Well.

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