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A Midsummer Night's Dream

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Bebe Neuwirth
Photo by Joan Marcus

Considering what a gloomy April it's been in the (sigh) real world, the opening scenes of Tony Speciale's new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Classic Stage Company look like a raging downer. So much of the stage and so many of the actors, swathed in dark tones as if for a funeral, and that gigantic angled mirror upstage only extending the bleakness into infinity—it's almost enough to make you want to burrow into a hole and hide until August. And given how dreary the show, which is generally considered one of William Shakespeare's most effervescent comedies, is to that point, no one would blame you. Do that, however, and you'll miss this production's genuinely inventive moments, few and far between as they may be.

The first and most visually stunning of these occurs when the fairy queen Titania (Bebe Neuwirth) retires to her "flowery bed," in this case by joining with her flitting entourage in bringing down hundreds of rose petals from every available window into the heavens. Before long, they've coated the entire stage—and almost her entire body—in their satiny redness, and soothed your own anxious spirits by convincing you that there may be some compelling color to be found here after all. She's shortly to be woken to the sight of man with an ass's head, one Bottom by name (who's played by Steven Skybell), which will cause all sorts of other complications, but for now life is bliss.

All the mischief is brought about, of course, by Titania's king, Oberon (Anthony Heald), and his faithful servant Puck (Taylor Mac), who incite their games by way of the famous flower that, when rubbed on a person's eyes, causes him or her to fall hopelessly in love with the next being glimpsed. Their meddling brings about the second of this production's most involving moments, when Grecians Lysander and Demetrius (Nick Gehlfuss and Jordan Dean), florally infected, are competing over their love for Helena (Halley Wegryn Gross), much to the chagrin of Hermia (Christina Ricci), who thought her love with Lysander was eternal.

The men, who by this time have stripped down to just their skimpy underwear (don't ask), lay into each other in every conceivable way, before finally circling around the other like rabid wolves, each bearing a woman on his shoulders, who in turn bares her claws to screech into a vicious catfight with her rival. This isn't just dramatically intense, it's intensely funny, all their problems physicalized to such an extent that you understand, in a way that few other productions make abundantly clear, how the straitlaced civility of the city is useless in the wilderness through which they're wandering. And their exhaustive (and exhausting) struggle demonstrates just how seriously these four take what little romance they can get.

Unfortunately, that's about the extent of the delights of this Midsummer, which is strangely leaden as far as, well, pretty much everything else. Speciale has tinkered with the text, more than a little, and encouraged a lot of contemporary ad-libbing (particularly from Puck) that spoils the script's prevailing lyricism. There's also a severe lack of balance to the evening, with some 105 minutes passing before intermission, leaving no one any opportunity to rediscover the pacing that might keep the second, skimpy section from being turgid.

That would be difficult in any event as so much of it is consumed with Bottom and the other rude mechanicals performing their take on Pyramus and Thisbe. Usually the comic highlight of the evening, here it gets almost no laughs, at least as compared to the far more daring lovers' spat from just a few scenes before. It's almost as if it's not even supposed to be funny, as Speciale has reconceived the group as an avant-garde, musical theater performance art sextet (leader Peter Quince, gamely played by Rob Yang, constantly strums dissonant notes on his guitar for no discernible reason), something that doesn't exactly inspire hilarity. Even ever-reliable David Greenspan, as the male actor who plays the female Thisbe, can barely eke out titters; something is definitely wrong.

That would be Speciale's tangled concept, which develops the dream metaphor beyond his ability to support it. His idea is that the slumbering lovers bring the shades of those in the real-life court—Theseus (Heald), his new bride Hippolyta (Neuwirth), and their steward Egeus (Mac)—to the woods, and work out their problems while slumbering. But how that works, or how the mechanicals become involved, is never clarified in the staging. And why do all the actors jointly deliver the epilogue, when only Puck (its traditional speaker) is portrayed as an agent of change? Almost everything, including Mark Wendland's dyspeptic tire-underbrush set an Andrea Lauer's scattershot costumes, is confusing. (Tyler Micoleau's lights manage to strike the right notes.)

The acting is a mixed bag as well. Heald is excellent and authoritative, if a bit underseasoned, as Oberon; and the lovers hit all their marks, although it's often more difficult than it should be to distinguish between Lysander and Demetrius (in their roles here, both Gehlfuss and Dean are exceedingly tall, red-headed, gym-carved, and essentially personality-free). But everyone else, from the stiff and stony Neuwirth, who doesn't convey much dangerous passion as the dominatrix-styled Titania, to especially Mac, who's almost unbearably coy as he cross-dresses and hams his way through Puck, fails to ignite sparks.

Granted, how much heat should you need in a play called A Midsummer Night's Dream? More than this, it turns out. Speciale's take might pay more dividends if he drew greater distinctions between the living and the dream worlds beyond the flower fields through which they romp. But none of the actors looks ablaze with conviction, and too often that makes what should be one of theater's most warming titles so chilly that a jacket should be required for entry into the theater.

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Through May 20
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
Performances: Tues 7:00 pm, Wed 8:00 pm, Th 8:00 pm, Fri 8:00 pm, Sat 3:00 pm, Sat 8:00 pm, Sun 3:00 pm
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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