by Samuel L. Leiter
In 1970 Peter Brook revolutionized stagings of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by stripping away the encrustations of romanticist directors and designers, placing the play in a bright white box, abandoning conventional props, music, and costumes, and emphasizing the play’s circus-like elements. The romanticist tradition remains firmly entrenched, as witness Julie Taymor’s visually exquisite production two years ago, yet adventurous directors continue to seek breakthrough approaches to the Bard’s comically wondrous examination of love, jealousy, magic, mischief, and illusion.
Such a director is Eric Tucker, whose ambitiously radical approach, first seen this summer at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, is now at the Pearl Theatre. While the production has many fans, including the New York Times, a substantial number of attendees the night I saw it departed during the intermission (one couple left earlier). Could they have been subscribers at this generally straightforward theatre unprepared for an unconventional revival?
Tucker, artistic director of the innovative Bedlam company, is known for his small-cast, simply designed, imaginatively conceived revivals, as with his Hamlet, St. Joan, and Twelfth Night. His Dream ensemble uses five actors, two of them (Sean McNall and Joey Parsons) regular members of the Pearl’s company, to play all the characters, major and minor, thereby requiring considerable cross-gender performance. (The other actors are Mark Bedard, Nance Williamson, and Jason O’Connell, who stands out as Bottom and Puck.)
All props are mimed and Jessica Wegener Shay’s costumes suggest variations on tracksuits, with decorative strips that glow under special lights. John McDermott’s set fills the stage floor with a squared off, gravel-floored acting area (playground? sandbox? kitty litter?), with a background of concrete-like slabs, the wings and their workings completely exposed. Eric Southern’s lighting is minimal but very effective, some of it employing downstage spots that cast eerie shadows on the upstage walls.
The question is: what happens when you stage A Midsummer Night’s Dream with such a tiny cast, not a single costume alteration, no props, and the sounds and music (much of it drawn from familiar pop tunes) supplied by the actors themselves? The answer—at least much of the time—is, like the name of Tucker’s company, bedlam, which is the effect frequently created as the actors make instantaneous transformations from one character to another and back again, sometimes singly and sometimes in groups. While several scenes are readily comprehensible, like those featuring the Mechanicals, too much else is a mélange of self-indulgent antics allowing the actors to show off their shape-shifting ability while changing vocal tones and accents, and even resorting to actor mimicry (i.e., Bottom speaking like Brando as Stanley Kowalski).
Even if you know the play well, you may be annoyed by theatricalist excesses that threaten to overtake the play; how can you care about the lovers when, with all the unnecessary role switching and other directorial interpolations, you’re never sure who they are? Abandon poetry, magic, romance, lyricism, consistently identifiable characters, and physical beauty, and emotional involvement is bound to take a hit. Of course, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is meant to be funny—but not ninety-five percent of the time.
This isn’t to say that there’s not a lot here to appreciate. Tucker and his choreographer, Brigitta Victorson, do terrific things with the movement patterns, gestures, and other physical (occasionally sexual) activities, using the cast in truly creative mimic formations to represent things material and immaterial; splayed fingers, fluttering hands, and Shiva-like multi-armed waving go a long way here.
The actors attack with unstinting vigor (and a whole lot of shouting) from the get go, and there are numerous clever touches, but, at hour one, your patience may be tested when you realize you still have an hour and a half to go. If the actors are over the top during the less comedic scenes, you can imagine how far they go when they have something really funny, like the “Pyramus and Thisbe” scene, to explore; it’s a good example of the “Look, Mom, I’m funny” school of acting. Laughs are milked so insistently that if Pyramus and Thisbe had udders they would drown. Some folks laugh at this stuff but, as Sam Goldwyn said, “Include me out.”
Kudos to the hardworking troupe for its unflagging good spirits, versatility, and physical agility, but the too-clever-for-its-own-good Dream they’re in is one from which I was glad to wake up.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Pearl Theatre Company
555 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through October 31
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).