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A CurtainUp California Review
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Well, that's the beauty of Shakespeare, isn't it? That his plays are so infinitely malleable. That quarterbacks and cheerleaders can half-heartedly muddle through one of his comedies, and it's still funny. That a lighthearted piece of frivolity like Midsummer can stand the test of time, and still be enjoyable and relevant 400 years later.
The general plot is probably familiar. Theseus, the duke of Athens, is getting ready to marry Hippolyta, and needs entertainments for his four-day celebration. Egeus, a nobleman, brings his daughter Hermia to Theseus. He wants her to wed Demetrius; she is in love with Lysander. Theseus threatens to have her executed if she doesn't obey her father, so she and Lysander make plans to run away and marry elsewhere. She tells her friend Helena of their plans; Helena, who is desperately in love with Demetrius, who wants nothing to do with her.
The four lovers end up in the woods outside of Athens. Also in the woods are a straggling band of actors, rehearsing a play for Theseus; and fairies; their queen, Titania; and king Oberon who sends Puck to drip a love potion in Titania's eyes, making her fall in love with the first person she sees upon waking. Naturally, he wants her to fall in love with him, but instead, she falls for one of the actors, Bottom, whose head Puck has transformed into the head of a donkey. Puck also gets some love potion on Lysander, who falls in love with Helena and abandons Hermia. Then Demetrius gets some, and also falls in love with Helena.
Eventually, it all gets straightened out. Demetrius and Helena wed, Lysander and Hermia wed, Titania and Oberon wed, and Theseus and Hippolyta wed. The actors present their play, Pyramus and Thisbe, with Bottom's proper human head restored. And all is well.
It's been a summer of Shakespeare here in San Diego; three plays of his at the Old Globe, and now Midsummer at La Jolla Playhouse. This is definitely the prettiest production of Midsummer I've ever seen. Visually, it's somewhere between Alice in Wonderland and Cirque du Soleil, full of sparkle and whimsy. There are even acrobats. The furniture flies (including the piano, which turns end over end in a stunt reminiscent of Tommy Lee's drum set) and the fairies cavort in massive upside-down chandeliers, mirrors become pools of water. What appears to be a large Victorian drawing room becomes a forest of chandeliers and window panes; the furniture and curtains fly away, the maids turn into fairies, the butler becomes Puck. There's an on stage orchestra to play selections from Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream."
David C. Woolard's costumes are easily the most stunning element. Some of them are literally upside-down, to mirror the furniture; Hippolyta's skirt and Bottom's donkey head are elaborate woven golden cages. Each one is beautiful and carefully crafted and unique, and these costumes combined with Neil Patel's set design make the play.
As you might expect, Bottom (Lucas Caleb Rooney) and Puck (Martin Moran) are the most engaging cast members. They keep the entire production from spinning off into mere spectacle. The lovers, I'm afraid, aren't nearly as good. Hermia (Amelia Campbell) and Helena (J. Smith-Cameron) are shrill, Demetrius (Sean Mahon) and Lysander (Tim Hopper) are dull. I had a hard time believing anyone could love any of them. Daniel Oreskes as Theseus and Oberon and Charlayne Woodard as Hippolyta and Titania have a commanding stage presence, and the fairies are nimble and acrobatic. But I found myself more interested in the set and costumes than in the actors, or the story.
Despite the above reservations this is a great evening. All the visual surprises and delights more than make up for the shortcomings. While production-heavy plays often overshadow the text and the talent in La Jolla Playhouse's Midsummer, the production is the talent. All the elements tie together to become a fantasy, not just a spectacle—-surely what Shakespeare must have imagined when he wrote it.