Saturday, December 7, 2013

173. Review of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (December 6, 2013)


Theatre for a New Audience.
Last night, the first thing I did on getting home after seeing the heralded production of Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM at the Theatre for a New Audience in its spanking new digs in downtown Brooklyn was to post a Facebook status report: “For those who might be interested, even though it's totally sold out through the rest of the run, Julie Taymor's production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM is everything it's racked up to be . . . and more.” This morning, after a good night’s sleep, I would add the following: “And less.”
If we’re talking about  enhancing Shakespeare by imaginative staging using all the technological features of sliding stage floors, multiply-sized elevator traps, elevator platforms that fill an entire proscenium opening, advanced flying machinery, and whatever else a computer can be hooked up to, then this DREAM is a dream come true. It will linger in your memory because of some striking casting (notably Oberon [David Harewood], Titania [Tina Benko], and Puck [Kathryn Hunter]), exceptional cross-period costumes by Constance Hoffman, miraculous lighting by Donald Holder, haunting music by Elliot Goldenthal, evocative sounds by Matt Tierney, choreography by Brian Brooks, awesome moving projections by Sven Ortel, and remarkable scenic effects by Es Devlin using a huge, billowing, white canvas, and a variegated assortment of other sheets of fabric. Nor should we forget the puppets, animal masks, and stilts reminiscent of Ms. Taymor’s THE LION KING. There’s even a veritable army of forest sprites and fairies played by gymnastically fit children ranging from grade schoolers to adolescents.
Kathryn Hunter. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Who will ever forget Puck’s upside down entrance through a slit in the cloudlike canopy, wearing a pair of pants that continue to stretch into the clouds until he’s nearly reached the ground? Or what about the orgasmic pulsing of giant flowers projected on the wide expanse of the cloud in which Titania and Bottom (Max Casella) are entwined in Titania’s bower? Or the ass’s head worn by Bottom that can actually move its mouth when speaking? Or Puck and his magical creatures running around or sitting and lying on the catwalk surrounding the mezzanine section of the auditorium? (From my seat, I could have stroked the hair of the child in front of me.) Or the black as night Oberon, his already dark, massively muscular upper body further blackened and painted here and there with gold stripes, in contrast to the albino whiteness of the gorgeous Titania, with two tiny lights affixed to the bosom of her bejeweled white gown illuminating her delicate features and her piled-high platinum coiffure? Or the black light effect highlighting the neon-like streaks on Oberon and Titania’s robes as they grandly exit? Or the tiny Puck flying dizzily around the space, and seemingly being lifted by Oberon to stand on one foot supported on the King of Shadows's hand (an image recalling Giorgio Strehler’s THE TEMPEST, in which Ariel stood thus in Prospero’s palm)? Then there are the trees, represented either by bamboo-like poles manipulated by the fairies dressed in black, like the kurogo stage assistants in kabuki, or by white poles attached to wires that can be manipulated from overhead. And how about the grassy furniture, arm chair and lamp included, for Peter Quince (Joe Grifasi) to hold his rehearsal in the forest, or the pillow fight among the lovers that escalates into a giant one among the children?  
Kathryn Hunter and David Harewood. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Taking a completely different tack from the famous stripped-down DREAM created by Peter Brook in the early 1970s, Ms. Taymor has employed new technology to conjure up an old-fashioned romantic vision of the play that, with barely any solid scenery (except for a façade representing a miniaturized image of Theseus [Roger Clark] and Hippolyta’s [Okwui Okpokwasili] palace), manifests a world of magic and illusion perfectly suited to this magical comedy of love’s confusion, irrationality, and impermanence.
David Harewood (standing), Tina Benko, Max Casella, Kathryn Hunter. :Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
With regard to the acting, I take away most vividly the dominating performance of British actor David Harewood as Oberon. Fans of TV’s “Homeland” will remember him as David Estes, chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. Mr. Harewood’s physical impressiveness and grace is matched by his intelligence, charm, and vocal authority. Counterbalancing him is the light as air but consistently elegant and regal Titania of Ms. Benko.
A special commendation must be granted to the unusual presence of Kathryn Hunter, the diminutive British actress who astonished local theatergoers earlier in the year as the ape in KAFKA’S MONKEY. Although she’s 56, Ms. Hunter is as physically lithe and energetic as a kid, doing splits, cavorting acrobatically on wires, dashing hither and thither, and moving her apparently double-jointed body and limbs in eye-popping ways that sometimes border on the (artistically) grotesque. She dresses in a clown-like costume of white shirt and too- short pants held up by suspenders, with her face in clown makeup topped by a bushy red wig that almost seems to be on fire. Ms. Hunter, however, is no ordinary mime; she’s a gifted actress who has played many classical roles, including King Lear and other males, and her incisive portrayal of Puck brings a dark, even mildly malicious tone to this mysterious creature of the night.  
Tina Benko. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
The four young lovers, Demetrius (Zach Appelman), Lysander (Jake Horowitz), Helena (Mandi Masten), and Hermia (Lilly Englert) are all attractive and competent, and they make the most of the farcical physical business that Ms. Taymor puts them through. Ms. Englert, who’s from England and is making her Off-Broadway debut, stands out because of that extra bit of comical insight and timing she brings with her, and also because of the richness of her voice. When the lovers’ situation eventually is straightened out and, peeled down by now to their undies, they finally hook up with Mr. or Ms. Right, as the case may be, I was touched by their joy and enthusiasm.
From left: Zach Appleman, Lilly Englert, Jake Horowitz. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
When I began this review and said I had to add “And less” to my FB status report, it was mainly because of my general dissatisfaction with the Rude Mechanicals, the comic sextet of workingmen that produces the “Pyramus and Thisbe” playlet at the end. The material seems innately funny on the page but it rarely is so in performance. Even the famous Max Reinhardt-William Dieterle movie version of 1935, which included several top comic stars of the day and, surprisingly, cast James Cagney as Bottom, pushes too hard for laughs to earn more than a smile. (On the other hand, Mickey Rooney’s Puck in that movie remains definitive.) The actors in the new production do yeoman’s work and, on the surface, seem well suited to their roles, but, apart from a few authentic laughs, they fail to light many comic fires.
All are dressed as present-day laborers, each with his specialty, and the wide disparity in their body and facial types is itself good for a chuckle. Among the too-few moments of true comic inspiration are Jacob Ming-Trent as Tom Snout, the tinker (although dressed as a house painter) who plays “Wall,” delivering his lines like a Baptist preacher. Brendan Averett, as Snug the joiner, who plays “Lion,” is a giant of a man, and the contrast between his size and his gentleness is a useful touch. Robin Starveling, the tailor, who plays “Moonshine,” is acted by William Youmans with more than a dash of swish. He has a fine moment when he’s trying to perform for the talkative nobles and keeps being interrupted. Finally, he’s allowed to continue, and he throws his lines away as if “why bother?” Zachary Infante’s Francis Flute, the bellows mender, who plays “Thisbe,” is a slender fellow with a Hispanic accent and a hip-hop look. Max Casella’s Bottom takes a cue from Cagney by playing him with a Nu Yawkese accent and wise guy attitude, but, like Cagney’s performance, it’s too self-consciously farcical, especially when he does “Pyramus”; on the other hand, his scenes as an ass with Titania are both effective and affecting.
From left: Jacob Ming-Trent, Zachary Infante, Max Casella, Brendan Averett, William Youmans. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Julie Taymor has proved once again that she is among the most impressively original and creative of American directors, especially when she collaborates with a superlative company of technicians and artists. As my granddaughter, Briar, said, even those who don’t understand English will be able to follow the play’s story, so clear is the staging and the intentions of the characters. When we left the theatre and walked to the subway, we barely noticed the freezing rain because we had so much to say. The weather may have been giving us a foretaste of winter, two weeks away, but for us we were still lost in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM.