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A Midsummer Night's Dream
by Les Gutman
The urge to toy with A Midsummer Night's Dream is so great that there are actually two such enterprises opening, in two different media, in less than a week's time. The proximity of this play's opening to that of the new, star-studded film version of Shakespeare's favorite fairy tale precipitated the one-two punch I set myself up for on successive nights. Any serious effort to compare the two would, however, be in vain.
For the film (additional details can be found in the box below), the recipe seems fairly straightforward: to draw an audience, adorn it with as many popular movie and television faces as humanly possible; to give it legitimacy, add a handful of experienced stage actors; to make it gorgeous, move the setting to Tuscany in the late 19th Century and fill the air with the sound of opera; and to maintain integrity, leave the Bard's words essentially intact. The sumptuous result, disappointingly, is a pile of incomprehensible mush, save for the delectable contents of the play-within-the-play.
From a very different vantage point, Moonwork Theater's staging at the lower East Village's Connelly Theatre could also be described as sumptuous. Blessed with a cast of over two dozen actors, ranging from journeymen to near-neophytes, an elaborately decorated set and an embarrassment of riches in the costume department, this Dream is beyond the wildest ones of most off-off-Broadway companies. And, as was the case with Moonwork's 1998 production of Richard III, which I reviewed quite favorably (see link below), there is a degree of method to the madness.
The premise this time is to go Shakespeare one better. Not satisfied with just the play (Pyramus and Thisbe) within this play; director Gregory Wolfe has now set the whole thing within yet another play. To say the least, it makes for a very theatrical evening.
We join the Duke of Athens (Gary Desbien), very much a patron of the theater, and his fiancée (Kathy Keane), for opening night of a new play called Dane!, a musical version of Hamlet. At its end (elliptically achieved, thankfully), the opening scene of what Shakespeare wrote, introducing the romantic dilemmas of Hermia (Sasha Eden), Helena (Catherine Mueller), Lysander (Gregory J. Sherman) and Demetrius (Mason Pettit), proceeds in the foreground as the cast and crew of Dane! congratulate each other and clean up after the performance behind. Shortly, we discover it is to be the stagehands who will perform Shakespeare's "rude mechanical" -- the play within -- under the able direction and, it turns out, compositional skills of Quince (the estimable Rusty Magee).
If this seems suitable homage to the theater, in the words of a great showman, "you ain't seen nothin' yet". It's not until we enter the fairy woods that the full scope of the theatrical extravaganza Mr. Wolfe has in store for us is manifest. The world of Oberon (Mark Hammer) and Titania (Paula Stevens) can best be described as Sunset Boulevard meets The Dresser. Titania is Norma Desmond; a prissy Puck (Robert Bowen Jr.), Oberon's dresser. The woods seem to have been deposited in the New Amsterdam Theatre in its (original) heyday (with even the Connelly's extravagant tin proscenium repainted in replica). Every entrance by Titania and her fairy train now demands a major production number not to mention a costume change. Few stones are left unturned: Flo Ziegfield, Busby Berkley, Esther Williams, Carmen Miranda and on and on (and on). It's a clever idea, and Wolfe deserves credit for his follow-through and attention to detail, but it eventually starts to wear pretty thin.
Once all of the intervening chaos and confusion subsides, and all of the couples are happily aligned, Magee and company return to present a musical version of the play-within-the-play, setting Shakespeare's words to Magee's original pastiche: an entertaining idea that also wears out its welcome before it is finished.
Much of what made Moonwork's rethinking of Richard III appealing evades them now. Whereas that production found ingenious ways to further the story with its innovations, here these modifications serve mostly as diversions. While the notion of making the "mechanicals" into stage hands is clever enough, as an example, it interferes: Helena's important monologue at the end of the first scene must compete with all manner of unscripted business. Similarly, the appropriate directorial restraint exhibited in Richard III is in short supply here. Once the choreographer is let loose in the fairy kingdom, it seems the floodgates are open and any devotion Mr. Wolfe has to telling the story became secondary.
Performance quality varies from exceptional to fairly pedestrian. As in last year's production, the work of Moonwork principals Sherman and Pettit is apt, sharp and well-delivered. Also especially noteworthy are the performances and characterizations of Oberon and Puck, by Mark Hammer and Robert Bowen, respectively. Pity that none of the women are able to hold up their end of the bargain, and that James Wolfe's Bottom was so miscalculated that his rough-hewn buffoon became just so much flotsam riding the waves. (Contrast this with Kevin Kline's Bottom in the film, which rises above the surrounding mediocrity.)
Midsummer Night's Dream is a decidedly tricky proposition to pull off -- if for no other reason, because it is really three plays in one. Adding an extra variable to the mix didn't make Gregory Wolfe's job any easier. That it got the best of him stations him in a long line of predecessors who have found directing the play less of a dream than a nightmare.
LINKS MENTIONED ABOVE
CurtainUp's review of Richard III