Photo Joan Marcus
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
If you’re a Shakespeare virgin as either an actor or an audience member, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the ideal place to start. The language is not intimidating or difficult, and it’s so filled with simple mischief and delight that it’s as close to foolproof as any play ever written. I’ve seen amateur productions of Midsummer that were at least winningly buoyant, and some were even unforgettable, maybe because it’s partly conceived as a send-up of amateur players. And now I’ve seen something I never thought I’d see, a star-studded production of Midsummer at Classic Stage (through May 20) that turns this most charming and actable of all Shakespeare plays into a disaster area of poor ideas and incoherent intentions, an extended agony of directorial and design malfeasance. Director Tony Speciale has chosen to stage the play on what looks like a deserted corner of Bryant Park, and he has clothed his players in what look like the gleanings of several midnight runs on a garbage dump. The text is thoroughly obliterated by line readings that are alternately screeched, shouted or garbled, and there is such a desperate air of uncertainty throughout that it feels like the text is being poked, pummeled and pissed on on all sides.
As this production lurches forward, it starts to exert the negative fascination of all truly misconceived art, a sort of twilight zone where the actors seem to be in an infernal contest to see who can give the worst and most inappropriate performance. Is it Bebe Neuwirth as an adenoidal Titania in black leather, aimlessly moving her arms around as if she’s searching for some kind of Bob Fosse choreography? Is it Christina Ricci as a mean-girl Hermia, or the even more drastically malnourished Halley Wegryn Gross as a Helena that seems to be patterned after every Reese Witherspoon performance of the last ten years? Is it Taylor Mac, who plays a Puck that seems to be both Kiki and Herb rolled into one? Or is it Steven Skybell’s Bottom, who suggests Mel Gibson after three too many drinks? As Demetrius and Lysander, Jordan Dean and Nick Gehlfuss seem to have been cast because they look and sound exactly alike.
Even if you’ve seen this play many times before, and most theatergoers have, it’s difficult to understand what any of these actors are saying because they don’t know how to read the lines and make them intelligible, and so they fall back on the most strenuous physical horseplay and tired “modern” noises and gestures. In the final scene, David Greenspan offers some relief from this ongoing catastrophe by choosing to play Flute’s performance as the bereaved Thisbe in all seriousness, and God bless him for sneaking one legible concept into this worst of all possible Dreams. These shadows have offended. This is a production of Midsummer so bad that I think everyone save Greenspan should spend at least one night in jail as penance for their crimes.