A director known for her big screen and Broadway productions that strut and flash and swing, Julie Taymor tackles A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the inaugural production of Theater for A New Audience’s new space in Brooklyn.
Taymor is a designer’s director, who turns her creatives loose and produces fantastical feats of theater. Original music by Elliot Goldenthal is in turns haunting and playful, performed live by Jonathan Mastro and Wilson Torres. Intricate lighting by Donald Holder sets the mood, whether cheerful or sinister. Constance Hoffman’s costume design is character-based rather than time-specific, and her talents shine with Titania’s textured rose gown, complete with opalescent shoulder collar hood and train, as well as Oberon’s sun mantle and fan-swords. There are wonderful feats of aerial tricks from Airealistic and a donkey mask with lips that sync with the actor’s voice. There’s even a credit in the program for Daniel Wurtzel, Fabric & Fans Artist.
The woods are full of fright and fairy tricks, thanks to Es Devlin’s grass-covered furniture and shadow lantern mazes and clacking trees sprouting up everywhere. Sven Ortel’s flashy projections are excessive for me, though they occasionally add atmosphere. Not surprisingly, Taymor has embraced the big, dramatic, wonderful and scary forest but has forsaken the trees: the quiet moments, the softness, the sweet depths of the play. Actors of varying skill are set adrift, and their performances are often determined by their previous experience and skill.
The lovers are left to fend for themselves. The quartet is mostly green actors, save for Mandi Masden, and they really come to life after the flower’s juice and its manic love. Lilly Englert as Hermia is fussy and delicate, nothing more than a meringue in poofy short skirts and a stiff ruff matching her father’s. Her voice ranges from scratchy to shrieky, and she misses the central sacrifice that Hermia is making for Lysander, which makes his seeming-fickle heart that much more devastating. Jake Horowitz as Lysander is not as deserving of her true love anyway; he has some great moments, but his laid back demeanor borders on apathy before the potion. Demetrius has a crisp aristocratic manner, which wears thin in the forest, but he’s all ham when he falls in love with Helena. Masden herself is more nuanced in Athens but is also prone to hysterics and wild gesturing in the woods. The lovers are on red alert all the time, which gives a lot of urgency but lacks depth. And they really need that love juice to come alive.
The other Athenians do a little better. Theseus (Roger Clark) in a long black leather coat is regal enough but doesn’t have the command that one might expect. He acts more like Hermia's rich, doting uncle than the Duke of Athens. Clark’s performance brings a genuine sense of concern for her welfare and future, if it diminishes his air of authority. However, Hippolyta (Okwui Okpokwasili) is a warrior queen to the hilt. Proud and noble, she takes Theseus as an equal, and perhaps a better in some ways.
The fairy rulers, however, put their mortal counterparts to shame. Titania flies down from the heavens, glorious in cold light and colder anger. Tina Benko channels Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel and Tilda Swinton's White Witch, equal parts beautiful and terrifying and enchanting and dangerous. Benko’s vocal range is impressive, from low and soothing to twinkling heights to passionate intensity. Her love madness is hilarious too, an immortal being reduced to a flustered teenager. Oberon rises on the moveable catwalk from the depths, radiant and glowering in rage. David Harewood’s thunderous voice takes command of the moment. He can laugh with and reprimand Puck in the same moment, and he shows true regret in having to put Titania through his games, but not enough to let her keep the changeling. Yes, this pair could definitely rule heaven and earth, move the forces of nature when they have a lover’s spat.
And Puck is Oberon’s errand child and old drinking buddy all in one. This Puck is a fun, chaos-driven, ungrown bundle of energy. He laughs and plays with the children in the cast (called “Rude Elementals”), teaching them and leading them. Robin is a sneaky trickster, and Kathryn Hunter crafts a marvelous creature of craggy youth, wisdom in the eyes but mischief in the heart.
Thank goodness for the mechanicals, dressed in paint-spattered overalls, camo, plaid, coveralls, and one overly dandy suit. Lending much needed comic relief are Peter Quince (Joe Grifasi), Flute (Zachary Infante), Starveling (William Youmans), Snout (Jacob Ming-Trent), and the fearsome Snug (Brendan Averett), who does indeed fright the ladies as Lion. And of course Bottom as a rough and tumble blue collar Italian with a poet’s soul. Max Casella not only embodies the Guido with lofty ambitions, but he also handles the functional donkey mask with great dexterity. Many thanks to the company of hard-handed men for bringing this production back down to earth.
The theater itself is a unique tool that is easily used and misused in turn. The orchestra seating on three sides is sunken below stage level, so the action is immersive. Parts of the stage can also sink below, and it works for dramatic entrances and exits, and for the court to sit in to make Pyramus and Thisbe more visible. Unfortunately it is hard to see into when the lovers awaken from their midsummer night’s madness. The two galleries above also serve the cast, mostly as a watching place for the Rude Elementals, to tease Robin with their creepy and hauntingly beautiful sing-song verse or throw pillows to the lovers in Act III (for the pillow fight, of course). But it also seems like a holding place for the children.
There are other parts of the production that seem shoehorned in--just because. I love when the Rude Elementals change into children for the wedding, reverse changelings entering the mortal world for one evening of celebration. But why is still unexplained. The house opens with a simple bed covered in white linens under a cool spot, shedding light on a world absent of magic. Puck enters in a crepey oatmeal suit and bowler hat, lays down on the bed, which then rises on hydraulic brambles before one of the Mechanicals comes and chain saws the bed from the bushes and a white curtain magically appears and the bed flies up and we are in Athens. It seems that there is some metaphor or symbolic meaning that was lost on me. Otherwise, it would just be an elaborate set up for the white curtain as a big top, to signal that the circus has begun.
This is clearly Julie Taymor’s Dream, and though it hath no bottom, it is a rare vision.