What a way to open a new theater: Julie Taymor’s lavish and inventive production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (at Theatre for a New Audience’s new Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Fort Greene through January 12) is the cheerful and elaborate kind with which you’d want to christen a space. It opens with a bed on a bare black stage into which crawls a small figure who evokes Joel Grey’s Emcee and Robert Blake’s Mystery Man with a shock of New Wave hair. Soon, tree branches emerge from a trap door, pushing the bed up to the rafters of the tall-ceilinged theater, and a white sheet extends out, covering the area of the long stage from high up in the air; a workman enters with a stage-chainsaw and “cuts down” the branches, the mysterious face-painted figure now disappeared 25 feet above the stage, held aloft by the sheet—all before the Duke of Athens has even announced that his nuptial hour draws on apace.
Honestly, my first thought was, is this really necessary? But as Ben Brantley wrote in his review, “You don’t go to a Taymor production… to exercise your deeper feelings,” and as such Midsummer is the perfect fit for her; a few tweaks can twist it into tragedy, as does Britten’s opera, which just closed at the Met. But it can just as easily be a trifling collection of wonders and comedy, ready for an imaginative director to drive each to their extremes. So when that face-painted figure reemerges—it’s Puck, played by an astoundingly good Kathryn Hunter, alone worth the admission—descending from the rafters through a vaginal slit in the sheet via an impossibly long-legged pair of trousers, why not just enjoy the Cirque-esque spectacle?
There is much such rising and descending, a sort of middle-finger to the detractors of Taymor’s accident-beleaguered Spider-Man fiasco on Broadway. The budget there was the reportedly the largest in theater history, while her budget here is a mere fraction (if still substantial): $2.4 million. “It seems like an awful lot considering what we saw,” my girlfriend said after hearing that figure. “Those paper wigs must be made from the finest paper from the Isle of Capri.” Taymor’s production, like Peter and the Starcatcher, does a lot with what seems like very little: a dozen children each holding a pole can become an entire forest—a moveable, menacing, nightmarish forest at that. She creates the mutable landscapes that haunt the play mostly with just a few sheets and projectors, ropes and wires—but those kids don’t work for free, those ropes don’t insure themselves. Taymor’s production is deceptively simple.
Though it’s also visually striking. Midsummer is set often in the fairy world, and Taymor draws a marked contrast between the Athenian court and the sylvan fantasy realm: the real-world is sparsely propped, usually white, and tastefully costumed; the dreamscape, however, is all painted faces and bodies, icy colors, a crystalline aesthetic with sharp lines against billowing linens. Its severe imaginings are dreamy, but also vaguely menacing. Reality, on the other hand, is much funnier. There are of course The Rude Mechanicals, the comic core of any Midsummer production, here a collection of racial and sexual stereotypes: the randy, Italianate Bottom (Max Cassella); the blase homosexual Starveling; the booming, sarcastic black Snout; the thickly Latino-accented Flute. Eh, it actually works, mostly, but what’s even funnier is the antically physical, sharply spoken screwball of the quartet of lovers lost in the woods, the victims of various mistaken-identity potionings. At the end of Act III, when the four all together confront each other, drugged and delirious, their hilarious shouting match gets out of control, ending as an underclothes pillowfight. There are no grand theatrical mechanics to this scene, just four ably comic actors finding a contemporary expression of their centuries-old characters—the sort of thing Theatre for a New Audience often does exceptionally, no spectacle necessary, a taste of what’s in store as this new space ages.
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