A Midsummer Night's Dream: Theater Review
Julie Taymor rekindles her artistic flame with William Shakespeare's comedy of mismatched lovers, the director's first New York stage project since "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark."
NEW YORK – The rejuvenating air of a purification ritual runs through Julie Taymor’s beguiling production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which inaugurates Brooklyn’s new $56.5 million performing arts destination, the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, in glittering style. From the opening coup de theatre, there’s a distinct impression that the visionary director is exorcizing the demons of her acrimonious experience on Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark by revisiting her roots, often with a self-referential wink. That makes for handcrafted theater that is by turns eerie, ethereal, carnivalesque, scary and funny -- all of it a cozy fit for this timeless comedy about love’s twisty paths.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that after the bruising public ordeal of the Spider-Man debacle -- in which she was effectively fired off a show she had created -- Taymor chose for her New York “comeback” project to return to an Off Broadway company that had been her frequent artistic home through happier times. Her collaborations with Theatre For a New Audience began almost 30 years ago, including The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, Titus Andronicus and The Green Bird. These were among the shows that put Taymor on the map, before she went on to birth Disney’s multibillion-dollar cash cow, The Lion King.
Many of the tricks here will be familiar to those who have followed Taymor’s career -- the billowing fabric, the masks, the shadow play and mime, the influences of Balinese and Japanese theater traditions. The director’s rapport with actors has never been at the forefront of her work, and text and performance take a backseat to visuals, becoming less central to the experience than in the average Shakespeare production. But what stunningly descriptive visuals they are, weaving the story in bold, vivid strokes set to a sinuous score by Taymor’s partner and longtime collaborator Elliot Goldenthal.
“Trip away,” says the king of shadows Oberon in his final speech, indicating the time to depart. But Taymor invites the audience to take that cue in the hallucinatory sense in her breathtaking opening.
Isolated in the middle of an empty stage is a single cot on which sleeps the miscreant fairy Puck, played with spry invention and physicality by the diminutive Kathryn Hunter as a croaky-voiced, androgynous vaudevillian in a rumpled suit and shock of flame-red hair. She looks like a lit matchstick. Riggers dressed as a modern-day work crew attach ropes and hooks to the bedding, while trees sprout from underneath, pushing the mattress and the slumbering Puck skywards. A chainsaw is cranked up, sawing off the trees as the bed sheet -- a predominant visual motif -- becomes an overhead screen, showing the night sky and the play’s title.
The effect is both magical and menacing, establishing the tone of a production in which dark enchantment, danger and playful comedy go hand in hand.
While Goldenthal’s music shifts from ambient unease to Danny Elfman-esque cacophony, those riggers go about setting the scene. They are revealed to be not stagehands at all, but Shakespeare’s Rude Mechanicals, the players commissioned to dramatize the tragic love of Pyramus and Thisbe as part of the upcoming nuptial celebration of Duke Theseus of Athens (Roger Clark) and his reluctant Amazonian bride, Queen Hippolyta (Okwui Okpokwasili).
Given that the Rude Mechs’ key moment comes so late in the action, their comic antics can sometimes be a drag. But this motley crew is a hilarious delight, including such resourceful veterans as Joe Grifasi, William Youmans and the wonderful Max Casella as a limelight-hungry Brooklynese Nick Bottom. Costumer Constance Hoffman has such fun outfitting them for the play-within-the-play that they banish any fatigue the audience might be feeling as the performance approaches the three-hour mark. In particular, the makeshift lion disguise for Brendan Averett’s docile giant, Snug, gets a huge laugh with its nod to Taymor’s Disney blockbuster.
The quartet of lovers at odds with the dictates of their elders and with their own contrary affections, Hermia (Lilly Englert), Lysander (Jake Horowitz), Helena (Mandi Masden) and Demetrius (Zach Appelman), seem to have been cast more for their youth and prettiness than their command of the stage. But they nonetheless make a winning impression, especially as they strip down to their underwear and battle out their differences in a pillow fight after Puck’s misdirected magic scrambles their feelings. The funniest of them is Englert’s petulant Paris Hilton take on a rich girl unaccustomed to Daddy’s wrath or to ranking second in the most-desired stakes. Masden’s smarter, more grounded Helena is also lovely.
In terms of performances, what really distinguishes this production is the sexiest Oberon and Titania imaginable. Looking like a resplendently ghostly Tilda Swinton with a leaning tower of Bride-of-Frankenstein hair, Tina Benko’s (literally) luminous Titania is every inch the Queen of the Fairies. As imperious as she is capricious, she manages to remain dignified even after being rendered helpless when Oberon’s magic makes her a lustful slave to Bottom, transformed into a mule. The chilly authority that David Harewood showed as the CIA counter-terrorism chief on Homeland is swapped here for transfixing sensual power as Oberon, mixing malevolence with mischief. Titania and Oberon’s entrances and exits alone are astonishing, with the bare-chested Harewood first seen in magnificent gold regalia that leaves no doubt about his kingship.
For a theater-maker so renowned for her visual storytelling, a hallmark of Taymor’s work has always been its ability to feed the audience’s imagination using deceptively simple tricks and tools. Even with the addition of Sven Ortel’s gorgeous projections and Donald Holder’s textured lighting, that remains very much true of her Midsummer. Illusion is the dominant element. Working with set designer Es Devlin, Taymor uses all of the imposing height and depth of the Polonsky’s versatile performance space, from the lofty flies to the aisles to trapdoors and pits in the stage.
One of the most beautiful creative touches is the use of unadorned silver bamboo poles to conjure the forest. These are subtly commanded by Oberon either to obstruct or clear the path for the mortals passing through, and they are wielded with dexterity by the show’s other stars, the Fairies and Spirits. Renamed the Rude Elementals, they are played by 20 multi-ethnic children ranging in age from 7 to 16, who encapsulate Shakespeare’s perspective on the uncontrollable nature of love with their sheer physical exuberance. They also undertake vocal duties on the more operatic interludes of Goldenthal’s score. Kids have often played the fairies in this play, but never in my experience with such transporting delight.
Many will no doubt grumble that Taymor’s extravagant flourishes make it more about the director than the play. But for others, it will be impossible not to feel the uplift of redemption for this singular artist after her public humiliation. Given the aerial mishaps that plagued her last show, it took some audacity to have Puck bounce around in mid-air on a harness while the lovers quarrel below. In those moments you can almost hear Taymor whispering, “Get behind me, Spider-Man.”
Venue: Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn, New York (runs through Jan. 12)
Cast: Tina Benko, Max Casella, David Harewood, Kathryn Hunter, Lilly Englert, Zach Appelman, Jake Horowitz, Mandi Masden, Roger Clark, Okwui Okpokwasili, Robert Langdon Lloyd, Joe Grifasi, Zachary Infante, William Youmans, Jacob Ming-Trent, Brendan Averett
Director: Julie Taymor
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Set designer: Es Devlin
Costume designer: Constance Hoffman
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Music: Elliot Goldenthal
Sound designer: Matt Tierney
Projection designer: Sven Ortel
Choreographer: Brian Brooks
Aerial design & flight: Airealistic
Presented by Theatre For a New Audience