A Midsummer Night's Dream
nytheatre.com review by Maggie Cino
April 21, 2006
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a screwball comedy, a wacky cloud of fairy dust. Director Tina Landau and musicians GrooveLily understand this very well.
For anyone who doesn’t know the intricate story, Theseus, king of Athens, is about to marry Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. At the same time Demetrius, a young man at court, wants to marry Hermia, the daughter of the king’s right-hand man. Hermia’s best friend Helena is in love with Demetrius, who won’t give her the time of day. Hermia, however, is in love with Lysander, who loves her back but can’t get her father’s permission to marry her. Theseus orders Hermia to marry Demetrius, so Hermia and Lysander run away to the fairy wood.
But the fairies are also in a fray. Titania, queen of the fairies, has a page boy who is the son of her best friend who died in childbirth. Oberon wants him, Titania won’t give him up. Meanwhile, some crude working men (known as the Rude Mechanicals) are planning a play for the wedding festivities. One of the Mechanicals, Bottom, stumbles away from rehearsal. Oberon gives him a donkey head and enchants Titania, who falls in love with the donkey-headed Bottom while Oberon gets the page boy. Concurrently, Helena and Demetrius have followed Hermia and Lysander into the forest. Oberon happens to see that Helena is sick with unrequited love and so sends his top fairy, Puck, to enchant Demetrius. Puck gets confused, enchants Lysander instead, and madness ensues that is ultimately all set right in the end.
It’s a long, complicated story, and the first two hours of this particular production are a little slow. However, the stagecraft and acting keep the magic alive.
Let’s start with the design team, as there’s no way to talk about this production without talking about Michael Krass’s costumes, Scott Zielinski’s lights, and especially Louisa Thompson’s set. The set is so wonderful I just wanted to run up there and play on everything myself. At the very top of the show the band is sleeping on a black stage. As they begin to dream the play, their chairs lift, flowers grow, and a white wall filled with candles descends—and there we are in Theseus and Hippolyta’s palace. At the end of that scene, the Mechanicals shove aside the gorgeous white flat and make their own crude little area with a sheet and work lights. In the fairy wood, slender silver poles with little climbing steps glimmer as trees, and the acrobatic fairies use them to curl up in podlike hammocks, bungee jump on them, hang sideways off of them. Maybe once this production is over, this team would consider collaborating on a playground for grownups.
But, oh yes, back to the play! A credit to both director and costume designer, there is no doubt that the small, bohemian Hermia belongs with scruffy Lysander, and that leggy, elegant Helena belongs with aristocratic Demetrius. Another choice piece of casting is Lea DeLaria as Bottom. Her Bottom is a crude show-off but he is also actually talented, and the Mechanicals put up with all of his excesses because he’s the best performer of the bunch. Did I say “he”? Bottom is a woman who’s trying to pass as a man, a choice that enlivens DeLaria’s performance. Since she knows she might be discovered at any moment, she has added incentive to make as much of every opportunity as she can. Ellen McLaughlin’s haughty strangeness is put to good use as Titania, and Jay Goede is an unusually kindhearted Oberon. In general, the actors are having such a good time with their parts that the old woods have new energy. Special note has also to be taken of Brenda Withers as Helena and James Martinez as Lysander.
GrooveLily turns the more poetic passages into songs that have a folk-rock-modern-adult-fairytale-rave feel. The music holds the production together, creates the mood, and keeps the energy high even when the story gets long. And Landau’s choice to give the fairy woods a nightclub feel justifies having all the band equipment on stage.
There is a moment at the very end that sums up the whole experience. After a final blowout musical number, Puck had to stop the audience’s applause—in order to ask for it again in the final speech. The timing is a little off all around, but it’s an enthusiastic experience nonetheless.