15Barker Center. 6Agassiz Theatre. 14Barker Center. 4Harvard Hall. 1Fay House. 2Memorial Hall. Stairways inhabit the spaces where we live and work. Whether they’re tucked into cavities in the wall or suspended in grand ceremonial style for all to see, we travel along their treads.Preston Scott Cohen, Gerald M. McCue Professor in Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, delights in stairwells: “They bind spaces together. They’re the means of vertical spatial communication.”Dedicated to movement and human activity, the stairway uniquely guides us. Cohen said, “It’s the one point in the building where you recognize the space shaping our movement so specifically. Everywhere else we can move left, we can move right, we can move this way and that; of course a corridor directs us to move in a particular direction; however, the stair is more prescriptive, more definitive.”Single run, switchbacks, L-shaped, curved, spiral, triangular — there are many ways to describe their forms. There are slow and fast stairs. The riser-tread ratio, the proportion between the height of the riser and the depth of the tread, determines the speed of the stair.According to Cohen, the double-helix is one of the most remarkable types. The most famous example is the Bramante Staircase in the Vatican, designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932. “The two paths are mutually exclusive. This double-ness is illusory because we perceive it as unifying. It is frustrating and thrilling at the same time.”While there are no double-helix stairwells at Harvard, there are examples in every other form and material. Glancing around the campus, stairs of marble, metal, wood, and cement spiral and cascade. Visually, they range from modest and functional to boastful and grandiose, blanketed in shadows to bathed in light. Functionally, they redirect and reorient motion and perspective.In the CGIS Knafel Building, architect Harry Cobb accomplished an impressive spiral stair. “What’s interesting about the Knafel spiral is how carefully he considered the dimensions,” said Cohen. “The problem with the spiral stair is that the step is wider at the perimeter than the center. Harry Cobb believes he has reached the correct balance between the two.”In this age of accessibility, an era of ramps, escalators, and elevators, what is the architectural sustainability of the stair? “The stairs’ time may have passed,” lamented Cohen. “This is a problem, especially for architects who love them so much. Should there really be great stairs that dominate spaces that only some people have access to?”Imagining a world without stairs is troubling for Cohen. Strong and prescriptive, “it’s the most eloquent and beautiful way to represent directional, sequential, spatial ideas … The stair is beautiful because we see it rise quickly.” He said simply, the stair is “not just an object. It’s a doer.” 7Emerson Hall. 8Memorial Church. 9Houghton Library. 16Andover Hall. 12Northwest Science Building. 10Faculty Club. 13Dudley House. 3Widener Library. 5Northwest Science Building. 17CGIS Knafel Building. 18Carpenter Center. 11Harvard Museum of Natural History.
That’s not a comparison I had expected to make when I walked into the theater, but I don’t think there’s a better one. The performances are exaggerated — the cast goes for more slapstick humor than wit or nuance. There’s a lot of falling over, pantomime fighting and more choreographed dance numbers than I would have expected (there’s only one, but I wasn’t expecting any.) It’s all loud self-caricature, which might have gotten on my nerves had I not been so busy laughing. But when taken all together, the changes add up. The jokes land more often and the lines become less stuffy. The show is grosser and sillier and, at times, dumber than any I have ever seen. And I couldn’t recommend it more. For those of you who did not read it in high school, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” follows a group of unlucky mortals stuck in a fairy-infested forest outside ancient Athens, Greece. Hermia (Deja Thompson) and Lysander (Sherrick O’Quinn) are fleeing the city to get married, while Hermia’s betrothed Demetrius (Brent Grimes) tries to stop them; Hippolyta (Abigail Coryell) is after Demetrius, who is far more interested in getting his fianceé back; and a troupe of players (led by Austen Parros as Bottom) is attempting to rehearse a play for the duke. The most spectacular performance, though, was Troy Witherspoon’s Oberon. He strutted around the stage with a sort of unnervingly quiet, laid-back anger, as though “Dazed and Confused” era Matthew McConaughey had taken a role as the King of the Faeries. His was certainly a melodramatic turn, but, unlike the rest of the cast, Witherspoon never tried for a laugh. The entire cast does an impressive job, especially considering they’re all performing three separate plays a week as part of their thesis project, but Parros was one of the clear standouts. He has one of the more ostentatious roles, playing Bottom as a scenery-chewing old Hollywood film star. Although hers was a much smaller role, Lea Lanoue got a lot of laughs as another one of the troupe’s inept actors. The School of Dramatic Arts’ MFA class imbued the play with millenial humor to appeal to modern viewers. (Photo courtesy of School of Dramatic Arts) The complicated setup basically boils down to a love triangle (or square, I guess) caused by a misplaced love spell from the fairy Puck (Nona Johnson). Most productions give the proceedings a light-hearted, rom-com vibe, which seems appropriate given the premise. But Professors of Theater Practice Andrei Belgrader and Natsuko Ohama, who adapted the play, chose to do something different: less “Sleepless in Seattle” and more “Wet Hot American Summer.” As in all versions, “Midsummer” folds in on itself at the end; the entire final act is occupied by a play-within-a-play, performed by the troupe of actors rehearsing in the woods. This performance, however, doesn’t just fold — it comes apart, adding new elements to the script. I won’t go into specifics here because you should see it for yourself, but it’s just as strange and funny as the rest of the performance. At times, watching “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is like sitting through a two-and-a-half-hour sex scene with your parents — painful, awkward and deeply, deeply uncomfortable. I have seen the play twice, across two Shakespeare festivals, and never have I felt more embarrassed while sitting next to strangers in a theater. But, while it may have been horny, chaotic and, yes, occasionally uncomfortable, it was also incredibly funny, joyous and fresh despite the script being well over 400 years old. The students of the School of Dramatic Arts’ Masters of Fine Arts program delivered the most over-the-top rendition I have ever seen. With a show like this one, I can think of no higher praise. Abigail Coryell (above), who plays Tatiana, delivers an electric performance in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” (Photo courtesy of School of Dramatic Arts) None of the changes — or performances, for that matter — are radically different on their own. The script is still the same, with only a few anachronistic lines added for comedic effect. The sets are non-existent, like usual, and the costumes fall within the “grab whatever you want from the rack” look of so many Shakespearean productions these days (at least the cast didn’t go for the even more overdone “vaguely military” look.) The play runs on select nights through March 7, sharing the stage with “Father Comes Home from the War” and “Guarded,” both with the same cast.