Theater review: 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' at La Jolla Playhouse
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is an invitation for a director to dive into the surreal. Considered by many to be Shakespeare’s first comic masterpiece, the play was written before “Much Ado About Nothing,” “As You Like It” and Twelfth Night,” and it stands apart in being patterned more like a dance than a psychological game.
Christopher Ashley, the artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse and the director of this year’s Tony-winning musical “Memphis,” takes a decidedly melodious approach to the romantic escapades. His staging, tumbling about a grand manor house with magical properties, is saturated with music, courtesy of Mark Bennett, whose original score is intertwined with some of Felix Mendelssohn’s classic compositions for the play. An onstage orchestra, largely composed of current members and alumni of the San Diego Youth Symphony, lends the feeling of a giddy gavotte.
The enjoyment here is aural and visual rather than intellectual. Imaginatively arrayed on Neil Patel’s fanciful Victorian set, the production, which opened Sunday at the La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, bombards the senses with surprises — a few courtesy of Basil Twist’s abstract puppetry, others involving aerialists capable of hanging from a sheet with a single ambidextrous leg and the rest from a design team charged with conjuring the play’s Grecian wood setting around ornate light fixtures.
But while the cast (featuring a comically captivating J. Smith-Cameron and a majestic Charlayne Woodard) is quite capable of holding its own against the shape-shifting scenery, the production doesn’t plunge us very deeply into the poetry. This “Dream” is content with being as pleasingly evanescent as fireworks on a summer night.
The directorial focus involves translating the riotous action into a fresh modern-day aesthetic. Not that all of Ashley’s choices are so original. Kenneth Tynan’s collected theater criticism reminds us that, back in 1959, Peter Hall set a similarly streamlined “Dream” in the great hall of an Elizabethan house that slowly but surely sprouted greenery. But the cobwebs have once again been cleaned out.
Because “Dream” straddles a cross-section of society, the politics of the work have been a preoccupation in recent decades. But Ashley follows in the legendary Peter Brook mode of seeing the play as a romp of illusion, role-playing and theatrical esprit, and his boldest interpretive stroke is in the middle-aged casting of the play’s lovers.
To refresh: Hermia (Amelia Campbell) has given her heart to Lysander (Tim Hopper), even though her father (Jonathan McMurtry) has determined that she is to wed Demetrius (Seán Mahon). He, of course, is adored by her best friend, Helena (Smith-Cameron), who’s left out in the cold until a supernatural accident brings her more attention than she can handle.
These sweethearts are hardly spring chickens. In fact, the two couples seem to have waded into their early middle years, although their passions could hardly be more exhaustingly youthful.
Puck (Martin Moran), the flying mischief-maker who instigates all the amorous confusion with a potent floral potion, appears to be in danger of losing his boyishness as well. (Was that a slight belly roll peeking out of his fairy costume designed by the inventive David C. Woolard?) I’m not sure what to make of the maturity of the players, but perhaps the suggestion is that “the course of true love never did run smooth” for young, old and in-between alike.
Time, certainly, doesn’t seem to have rendered Titania, queen of the fairies, and Oberon, king of the fairies, any wiser or more temperate. (Woodard and Daniel Oreskes gamely perform these roles as well as those of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, and Theseus, Duke of Athens, whose impending nuptials the fairyland sovereigns have come to bless.) Angry that Titania won’t hand over a changeling boy, Oberon cooks up a plan to have her become violently infatuated with the first creature she sees upon waking.
In making Bottom (Lucas Caleb Rooney) a working stiff transformed into a donkey, the object of her drugged desire, Shakespeare flaunts the notion of “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet” being “of imagination all compact.” But these thoughts stem more from the play than from the performance. The production doesn’t probe deeply into the whys and wherefores of a text that’s far more intricately composed than its sprightly shenanigans may seem. (Believed to be written for a noble marriage, “Dream” often comes across in the theater as a mix of pageantry and horseplay.)
I’m one of those people who rarely crack a smile at Shakespearean slapstick. The more Elizabethan pratfalls on display, the stonier I become. I can’t say Ashley’s Rude Mechanicals awakened my appreciation for antique hilarity, but I admired the vividness with which this blue collar troupe headed by Bottom presented the Pyramus and Thisby play-within-the-play that ushers Shakespeare's comedy to a close.
Rooney playing Bottom playing Pyramus and Christopher Douglas Reed playing Flute playing Thisby chomp into the “tragical mirth” with maximum gusto. Their farcical insouciance may not leave much room for the subtler undertones of mortality that darken Shakespeare’s “Dream.” But in keeping with the production’s lighthearted vision, they take great delight in demonstrating the way “quick bright things come to confusion.”
-- Charles McNulty
"A Midsummer Night's Dream," La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. 7:30 Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 22. $39-$66. (858) 550-1010 www.lajollaplayhouse.org. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Photos: Top: J. Smith-Cameron as Helena and Tim Hopper as Lysander. Bottom: Charlayne Woodard (above, center) Credit: Craig Schwartz