'A Midsummer Night's Dream': Toronto Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Kathryn Hunter in "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Julie Taymor's lauded recent New York production of William Shakespeare's joyous comedy of love and enchantment is given deluxe filmed treatment

TORONTO — Even the best of Julie Taymor's uneven film output hasn’t equaled the invigorating imagination of the director's kinetic stage work, but that disparity finds a happy meeting point in this bracing screen record of her 2013 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, one of the knockout highs of the most recent New York theater season. Filmed theater, opera and ballet has become a booming niche business in the past decade, but this entry — shot by Rodrigo Prieto with a nimble grace and illuminating focus that put you right there among the audience, and frequently even closer — raises the standard to a new level.

It's an odd surprise to see the venerable Ealing Studios logo pop up on the screen as a producer here, but it's also completely fitting that the legendary Brit comedy factory is on board. Taymor's gift for creating transporting stage pictures and conjuring fantastical, hallucinatory worlds is at the forefront of this production, which christened Theatre for a New Audience's sparkling Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn last December. But it was the command of the popular comedy strains in one of Shakespeare's wackiest and most beloved plays that made this interpretation such a joy.

That range extends across giddy romance, comical misunderstandings, slapstick, bewitching fairy mischief, witty wordplay and irresistible hambone shtick, courtesy of the traveling players known as The Rude Mechanicals. That troupe and their play-within-the-play late in the action can often serve merely to slow down the proceedings as Shakespeare reshuffles the romantic deck and returns all the ill-sorted lovers to their correct partners — both mortals and Rude Elementals, as Taymor calls the denizens of the mysterious shadow world here.

Having written a detailed review of the stage production for The Hollywood Reporter when it opened, I won't rehash all of its virtues here. But a few key points bear repeating and a handful of wonderful performances deserve further mention.

Whether it's her downtown experimental roots or her splashy Broadway ventures, of which Disney's $1 billion-grossing The Lion King is the ne plus ultra, what Taymor does is very much director's theater. Nobody really goes to see a Julie Taymor spectacle for the actors.

However, the British discovery Kathryn Hunter is a Puck for the ages. A diminutive woman with a raspy croak of a voice, the rubber limbs of a contortionist and a blaze of flame-red hair shooting upwards, she looks like a punk Linda Hunt as styled by Junya Watanabe. (Her textured, boiled-wool suit is by Constance Hoffman, who did the stunning costumes.) Creating romantic chaos both by design and by mistake, Hunter's Puck marries sly intelligence and unrepentant misbehavior with touches of daffy distraction, all while remaining unquestionably in the service of Oberon, King of the Fairies.

And what a magnificent king he is in the manly form of David Harewood. Cut loose from his CIA suit on Homeland, he's presented as a gleaming sculptural hunk of muscle, his naked torso striped with gold as he strides around in Hammer-time pants. Harewood's rumbling, ruminative Oberon has found his ideal match in Tina Benko's Titania, an ethereal Fairy goddess swathed in shimmering light yet equipped with a withering sting. Witnessing this divine creature as she simpers over a human transformed into a mule, under the influence of a magical juice extracted from a flower, is absurdist heaven.

Of the four young Athenian lovers set loose in the woods of confusion, played by Lilly Englert, Zach Appelman, Jake Horowitz and Mandi Masden, Englert's dizzy Hermia is the standout. A sulky daddy's girl with a silly lisp, she seems spliced together from Mamie Gummer and Paris Hilton, and her guileless line readings inject just the right hint of contemporary attitude without dishonoring the classical text.

Finally, not enough can be said in favor of the sublimely funny Rude Mechs, reimagined as a New York construction crew who double as riggers for some of Taymor and designer Es Devlin's more elaborate scene transitions and visual coups. Veteran Joe Grifasi leads as a sweetly addled Peter Quince, but the chief delight is Max Casella's Nick Bottom, a scenery-chewing Brooklyn wise guy who gets transformed by Puck into Titania's pet mule.

The film version allows us to see up close as Casella operates the mouth controls on his donkey headpiece, one of many instances in which our access is enhanced to Taymor's ingenious stagecraft. The director's signature devices — masks, puppets, shadow play, fabric that pours like liquid, and stylistic techniques borrowed from Balinese and Japanese theater — work well on film, as do the more cinematic elements of Donald Holder's dramatic lighting and video designer Sven Ortel's projections of psychedelic flowers and billowing clouds.

Long "bamboo" poles (they appear to be made of lightweight metal), maneuvered with agility by actors clad like bunraku puppeteers, represent the forest in ways that are both menacing and beautifully balletic. And as that mysterious realm's inhabitants, the 20 multiethnic children playing Fairies are enchanting.

Prieto, who worked with Taymor on Frida, shot the production using four digital cameras, and Barbara Tulliver's fleet editing furthers the achievement of covering this sensory experience in its full scope while also directing the eye to exactly where it should be looking. Composer Elliot Goldenthal's score has been augmented for the film, its moods ranging from brooding ambient accompaniment to hypnotic otherworldly notes to accelerated farcical tunes for the Rude Mechs that recall Danny Elfman's antic music for Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.

For filmed theater, this is about as immersive and immediate as it gets. And it's heartening to see an artist put a disastrous experience — in this case, the Broadway debacle of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark — behind her in such grand style.

Production companies: Ealing Studios, Londinium Films, in association with Theatre for a New Audience

Cast: Kathryn Hunter, David Harewood, Tina Benko, Lilly Englert, Zach Appelman, Jake Horowitz, Mandi Masden, Roger Clark, Okwui Okpokwasili, Robert Langdon Lloyd, Max Casella, Joe Grifasi, Zachary Infante, William Youmans, Jacob Ming-Trent, Brendan Averett

Director: Julie Taymor

Playwright: William Shakespeare

Producers: Lynn Hendee, Ben Latham-Jones

Executive producers: Aigerim Jakisheva, Robert Chartoff

Director of photography: Rodrigo Prieto

Production designer: Es Devlin

Costume designer: Constance Hoffman

Music: Elliot Goldenthal

Editor: Barbara Tulliver

Lighting: Donald Holder

Projection designer: Sven Ortel

Choreographer: Brian Brooks

No rating, 144 minutes.

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