There is something terrifically apt in director Julie Taymor, so loved after creating The Lion King, and so hated after Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, inaugurating a beautiful new theater in Brooklyn with Shakespeare’s play about the fickleness of affection.
There are echoes of her previous work in Taymor’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center — the lovely delicate animal costumes that the ensemble occasionally wear recall The Lion King, the breathtaking use of parachute-size sheets and aerial acrobatics seem taken from the Spider-Man playbook. But Taymor’s inventive staging has the feel of something new, ironically because she is in a way revisiting her past — she first worked with Theatre for a New Audience in 1984, when she was an experimental theater artist known only to the cognoscenti. Her Dream returns her to a relatively intimate scale (and lower budget) and is better because of it. It is time to love Julie Taymor again.
This is not to say that hers is a perfect Dream. Many of the moments on the stage are without question spectacular – wondrous, thrilling, stunning. The clever uses of something as simple as a pole and as elaborate as a built-in elevator on the back wall, along with a myriad of other materials and equipment and maneuvers, create a world of live magic. But all these effects can make the language of the Bard feel beside the point; at times the stage visuals seem to serve as a substitute for plain good acting. At the end of the nearly three-hour production, one might leave the theater thinking: Who knew there is such a thing as being too creative?
But that thought will surely be fleeting, for this is “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” built on supremely memorable visual moments, put together by a first-rate team of designers that includes scenic designer Es Devlin and lighting designer Donald Holder.
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This Midsummer begins with a luminously-lit unmade bed. Enter Puck, portrayed by the British actress and director Kathryn Hunter, looking like a diminutive Cirque de Soleil clown, in white-face and red hair, wearing a too-tight plaid three-piece suit and occasional bowler hat. She lies on the bed. The bed slowly levitates, supported by what look like tree branches, and accompanied by eerie original music by Elliot Goldenthal. A construction worker with a chainsaw arrives to cut through the branches, freeing Puck to float further up in the air, disappearing into a huge sheet that rises 35 feet to the top of the theater and suddenly becomes a blue sky with white clouds, embedded magically with the words “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Hunter turns out to be Taylor’s go-to performer for many of the aerial stunts throughout the show. This first scene with her unfolds before a single word of the play is uttered.
Once the story begins, Taymor competently juggles Shakespeare’s multiple plots and subplots on a full thrust stage (the audience sitting on three sides of it):
Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta: The royal couple are about to wed.
The four lovers: Hermia’s father insists she marry Demetrius or either be put to death or become a nun. But Hermia loves Lysander, and he loves her. Helena, meanwhile, loves Demetrius, but Demetrius doesn’t even like her, and is insisting on marrying Hermia against her will.
The fairy world: Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairies, have (to put it in modern terms) a love-hate relationship. Oberon employs Puck to wreak mischief, which he does too well.
The “rude mechanicals”: The working men who have formed a theater company who have asked the Duke to perform at his wedding.
The director in effect has added a fifth world. Among the 37-member cast are dozens of children used as an ensemble but also sometimes as part of the scenery, and manikins, even as props. At one point they roll across the stage like an attack of beach balls while Demetrius and Helena skip over them as if competing on an obstacle course
Costume designer Constance Hoffman must have had a ball dressing up these kids as everything from wood nymphs to ladies and gentlemen of the court to inanimate objects. But her costuming may be Exhibit A of the Taymor Too Much School of Theatrical Design. Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta are initially sheathed in fashionable full length black leather disco wear, an odd choice for a couple about to wed. Hermia wears a frilly Elizabethan collar while her lover Lysander wears an odd-angled futuristic leather suit that looks as if he wandered in from a stage adaptation of The Jetsons. It’s only when they take off their clothes that the four lovers seem properly garbed.
Yes, once they are hypnotized by Puck and their love and allegiances scrambled, the four young lovers strip down to their undergarments and get into first a wrestling match and then a pillow fight, the pillows being supplied in a constant stream by the child-ensemble sitting in the mezzanine on either side of the stage. This turns out to be a wonderfully comic scene, perhaps not surprisingly one of the most watchable scenes in the production. But it also has the unintended effect of serving as contrast to the largely disappointing performance of this quartet leading up to it.
Amid the mostly pleasing visual splendor, only a few performers stand out for the delivery of their lines (as opposed to their acrobatic feats or startling costumes or lithe attractive bodies.) Max Casella is hilarious as the vain foolish Bottom, garbed like a handyman a la Super Mario Brother, and given a great foil in Zachary Infante as Francis Flute, who at one point serves as a human beat box to Bottom’s doggerel, and at another is a surprisingly moving (yet still comic) Thisby, femaled lover to Casella’s Pyramus in the play-within-the-play. Worth mentioning as well is David Harewood, who was most recently blown up as a CIA official on Homeland, whose body here painted a deep black, and who wears a costume that glows magnificently in the dark, but who still manages to present the poetry spoken by Oberon, King of Shadows.
The new theater housing Taymor’s production has gone up on an old New York City parking lot, down the block from the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The 292-seat “Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage” has three levels — orchestra, mezzanine and balcony — but both the mezzanine and balcony are just two rows deep and, we’re told, the theater can be adjusted to fit whatever the needs of the production. Coming up this season after Dream are King Lear and Eugene Ionesco’s The Killer.
In the lobby of the theater is a mural that close up, looks like just a bunch of dots, but from a distance coheres into a pleasing portrait of William Shakespeare, like magic.
by William Shakespeare
Theatre for a New Audience @ Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place
Directed by Julie Taymor
Scenic Designer: Es Devlin
Costume Designer: Constance Hoffman
Lighting Designer: Donald Holder
Sound Designer: Matt Tierney
Projection Designer: Sven Ortel
Choreography: Brian Brooks
Aerial Design and Flight: AiRealistic
Voice Director: Andrew Wade
Hair & Wig Designer: Bettie O. Rogers
Make-up Designer: Andrew Sotomayor
Fabric & Fans Artist: Daniel Wurtzel
Electronic Music Designer: Rick Martinez
Jarrett Austin Brown
Jon Viktor Corpuz
Jake L. Faragalli
Robert Langdon Lloyd
Running time: About two hours and 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Tickets: $53 to $75.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set to run through January 12, 2014