Anyone passing the Lunt-Fontanne these days and hearing the hearty laughter inside might imagine there's a new Neil Simon play on Broadway. I am tempted not to divulge that what's going on is Shakespeare, lest it scare people away.
The Royal Shakespeare Company's rollicking production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" presents the play as if it were a knockabout farce, which, to a certain extent, it is.
To this end, for example, the forest in which most of the action takes place is represented largely by doors, a mainstay of farce. At one point the lovers, each opening a door, are softly lit in a way that suggests the shadowy, surreal nature Shakespeare intended for the forest. The only other lyrical touch is a series of bulbs, dimly lit, that dot the stage like fireflies.
For the most part, however, the doors are for slamming and the Athenian forest might easily be a gym as the confused, quarrelsome lovers go after each other like combative acrobats. Love's anxieties may be shortchanged, but the results are hilarious.
In the complex plot a magic herb teaches royals, fairies and youths how capricious love is and how imagination governs much of what we do.
Toward the end of the play the Duke compares lovers to lunatics and poets. By that time we should have traversed three separate realms: that of the nobility, that of the "mechanicals" working-class men putting on a play and that of the fairies, who control the others. Here, however, all three worlds seem populated by roustabouts (Titania's fairies are, in fact, the same actors who play the buffoons.) So the Duke's analogy, instead of seeming fresh, comes across as old news.
Nevertheless, what Shakespeare productions frequently lack is high energy, and in Adrian Noble's production the stage crackles with it. Monica Dolan, Daniel Evans, Kevin Robert Doyle and Emily Raymond may not catch all the romance in the verse, but they do convey the dangerous sparks love sets off when it has been wounded.
Alex Jennings, as both Theseus and Oberon, alone projects the nobility of the poetry. As his two loves, Lindsay Duncan is hard-edged and caustic, too seldom lyrical. The inspired clown Desmond Barrit sets the tone for the hilarious mechanicals. Barry Lynch is a waspish rather than a boyish Puck.
Whatever its shortcomings, this is a joyous "Dream," stunningly designed and lit, invigoratingly performed.
Surely we've been here before. Britain's prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company arriving in New York with a widely acclaimed production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by its long-suffering, but still stageworthy, resident playwright.
Yet it is already a quarter-century ago that this troupe brought Peter Brook's marvelously revolutionary white-box and circus staging of "The Dream" to New York, and since then much water has flowed along the Avon, the Thames and the Hudson.
Still here they are again with another "Midsummer Night's Dream" with another three-sided box (red on this occasion), and, of course, a new staging this time by Adrian Noble, the troupe's current artistic director.
It opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater last night, with our first sight of its Hippolyta swinging gently upon a trapeze. It was rumored to be a homage to Brook! And, interestingly, Brook's own Puck, John Kane, was back with the company this time, playing Peter Quince, one of the mechanicals.
Noble's view of the play is almost conventional. But he sees it as farce rather than comedy - with even the setting having enough stylized doors to satsify a Feydeau - encouraging the clown Bottom to dominate proceedings in a way not permitted since Charles Laughton played it for Peter Hall, and making all lovers more lunatics than poets.
With the assistance of that wickedly imaginative designer Anthony Ward there is much of magic here - a vast Magritte-like upturned umbrella to serve as Titania's couch, ghostly light-bulbs suspended glimmering in the dusk, and silken hammocks to waft the lovers skyward - but not that much that is magical.
The fairy element seems largely confined to the mincing manners of some of the actors, with Shakespeare's fairy nation reduced to something more like a fairy camp.
This production also lacks something even in clarity. As is now the common, post-Brook custom, the actors playing Theseus, Hippolyta and Philostrate double as Oberon, Titania and Puck, but here the transformation is so casual that the unwary, not completely aware of 'the text,' might not notice it, with disastrous results to the comprehension of play and production both.
The cast is nowhere less than adequate, and nowhere all that much more. Lindsay Duncan (remembered fondly from Broadway's "Les Liasions Dangereuses") makes an amusingly earthy Hippolyta/Titania, and Barry Lynch's sardonically mocking Puck has some neat moments.
Alex Jennings, a superb comic actor making his New York debut, appears sadly miscast as Oberon. One of the finest Peer Gynts I have ever seen, Jennings plays Oberon as if it were written by Oscar Wilde. He is haughty, snooty, and the most affected Oberon I've seen since Robert Helpmann in Purcell's "The Fairy Queen."
The best performance comes from Desmond Barrit as that weaver of genuine merriment, Bottom. Given by the designer some kind of flying-helmet contraption with ears, rather than the conventional ass's head, Barrit with expressions ranging from fear to lubricity handles the Titania scenes with unusual panache, and overall his lumbering complacency proves a constant joy.
I'm sure New York will flock to this latest RSC Broadway offering - but I cannot help feeling that other productions in the company's current repertory, its "Coriolanus" for example, might have saved it better, not inviting such unwise comparisons with 1971 and Brook.
A notice to ancient Athenian casting agents: Nick Bottom, dismissed for centuries as the saltiest of hams, has it in him to be a first-rate actor.
As portrayed by Desmond Barrit in the Royal Shakespeare Company's traveling production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which officially commenced its revels at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater last night, Bottom the Weaver spends most of his time onstage as a familiar figure of burlesque, an enthusiastically bad amateur thespian. But there's a heart-tugging moment, in the play-within-the-play in the comedy's last act, when he shows he's made of finer stuff.
Up to this point, Bottom has been acting the mock-heroic role of Pyramus with the usual overblown buffoonery. Then suddenly, without warning, he shifts into a lower key that resonates with real sorrow, and when a member of the onstage audience observes, "Beshrew my heart but I pity the man," it is not, for once, said in mockery. What has been a travesty of tragic theater becomes, briefly and astonishingly, the real thing.
There's a profound generosity in this moment: a benevolent, Jovean nod to actors of all levels and stripes. It also achieves what any major interpretation of "Dream" must achieve these days: it opens a window onto new vistas of perception of Shakespeare's most-performed comedy.
Unfortunately, the scene is all the more striking for its atypicality in what emerges overall as a slick, arrestingly pretty comedy machine. The technical surface of this "Dream" can't be faulted, but you have to look awfully hard to find what's left of its soul.
The production, directed by Adrian Noble, whose more affecting version of "The Winter's Tale" was seen in New York two seasons ago, has a lot going for it: an eye-dazzling set by Anthony Ward; an intelligent, consistently thought out code of visual symbols, and a host of attractive performers (including the stellar British heavyweights Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan as Oberon and Titania), with a clarity of diction that any actor would do well to study.
So why does this production, which should be a hothouse of erotic confusion, often feel cold? All of the right thematic buttons are pushed systematically, with Ilona Sekacz's emotion-cuing music ranging from horror-movie creepy (to remind us that dreams can turn into nightmares) to New Age spiritual (for that requisite sense of wonder).
Yet there's the abiding sense that the actors aren't connecting with their material in any vital way. Perhaps it's partly a consequence of their having lived, in many cases, with their parts for nearly two years. (The production opened in Stratford-on-Avon in July 1994, and is now on the fourth and final stop of its American tour, which concludes on May 26.)
Whatever the cause, the people onstage often come across as crisp comic constructs who rely on the scenery, lighting and music to tell their interior stories for them. For a play that's all about transformations, the characters seem as fixed in their personae as commedia dell'arte clowns.
Accordingly, the show abounds in precise, music-hall slapstick. There's a lot of knee-to-the-groin business and literal wrestling matches for the play's quartet of bickering young lovers. Some of this is very funny, but the production can feel as archetypal as a Punch and Judy show set to exquisite language.
Admittedly, "Dream" has become an increasingly hard nut to crack. It is to Shakespearean comedy what "Hamlet" is to tragedy: the main event in a sort of time-suspending theatrical Olympics in which each director tries to top his predecessors. It's been that way since Peter Brook's epochal, Meyerholdian circus of a production in 1970.
Mr. Noble knows that it's practically impossible to mount "Dream" these days without acknowledging what's gone before. And the set one sees on entering the Lunt-Fontanne would seem to refer directly to Liviu Ciulei's 1986 interpretation, with its blood-red box of a room, and to Mr. Brook's, with the trapeze than dangles from the ceiling.
It soon becomes clear, however, that Mr. Noble has his own imagistic agenda. In the manner of Surrealist painters, he and Mr. Ward make dislocating use of everyday objects, cast in a rainbow of sharp colors: the phantasmal nighttime world is indicated by a constellation of flickering, oversize lightbulbs; umbrellas become airborne vehicles for the fairies; and, above all, there are doors that materialize magically in the enchanted forest and that are opened and slammed with the meticulously timed frenzy of a Feydeau farce.
Doors, of course, are what lead us from one world to another, and here they appear to represent the passage between waking and sleeping worlds. For Mr. Noble, nighttime is literally dream time, a notion underscored by the fact that whenever the characters go to sleep, they levitate.
The use of the same actors in different roles -- Ms. Duncan and Mr. Jennings also play Hippolyta and Theseus, a tradition since the Brook production, and the menials appear as fairies -- suggests more pointedly than ever the idea that in dreams we become Jungian shadows of our daytime selves.
But for this device to seduce fully, one needs more psychological shading than the actors, who often go for the most blatant comic line readings, are willing to provide. As both Titania and Hippolyta, Ms. Duncan looks gorgeous in her strapless fuchsia dress (she evokes Anita Ekberg in "La Dolce Vita"), but she also seems oddly anesthetized.
And Mr. Jennings, looking like David Bowie in his glam-rocker days, uses his magnificently sonorous voice with a laugh-milking drollness that is only occasionally modulated with flashes of angry fire. It is as if he were doing "The Importance of Being Earnest."
Mr. Barrit, as Bottom, and his fellow tradesmen generate more actorly zest, even amid commonplace slapstick. Barry Lynch's virile, gymnastic Puck disturbingly locates the real malice in the character. And the runaway Athenians -- Monica Dolan, Daniel Evans, Kevin Robert Doyle and Emily Raymond, whose Helena has the engaging awkwardness of the young Lynn Redgrave -- are amusing in showing the self-conscious posturing of young love.
But it is frustrating that those postures never evolve into something more emotionally compelling. Two years after its inception, this enchanting-looking production seems artificially frozen. Any "Dream" should be a banquet of subliminal joys and fears. This one only gives us the menu.
Adrian Noble's comic and colorful "Midsummer Night's Dream" had its premiere at Stratford in August 1994 and has since toured extensively. This latest Royal Shakespeare Company import is a great grab bag of a show, by turns warm, voluptuous and chilly, tender and distant, modern as the Magritte and Dali visions that inspired Anthony Ward's stunning design and old-fashioned as the sweet "Pyramus and Thisbe" travesty performed with unfettered devotion at play's end by the bumbling band of "hempen homespuns."
Grab bag is also the word for a company led here by a ravishing Lindsay Duncan, doubling as Hippolyta and Titania and absent these shores since her amazing Merteuil in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" nearly a decade ago; along with the very hot Alex Jennings as Theseus and Oberon; and the lovably hammy Desmond Barrit as Nick Bottom.
As always with the RSC, one is moved to a kind of awe at the technical skill and the mastery of language that are the company's benchmarks, and as always, one may find oneself in such a state of admiration that one realizes one has missed the play. I missed the play; for all its visual elegance and keen articulation, the production mostly left me cold. "So quick, bright things come to confusion," as Lysander says.
Not all the actors are very good -- what I would give to have seen Emma Fielding's Hermia that summer at Stratford -- and those who are, are good in a way that's often more admirable than inviting. That's particularly the case with Jennings and with Barry Lynch, who doubles as Philostrate and Puck: Both have a kind of radiance in the Athens scenes bookending the play that goes harsh and punky in the forest scenes (bare-chested and big-wigged as Puck, Lynch recalls the Cosmo Girl-style photo of Ralph Fiennes that recently graced the cover of Vanity Fair).
Jennings steamrolls a lovely passage like Oberon's "I know a bank where the wild thyme blows," draining it of charm as well as poetry.
When the mechanicals gather for the first rehearsal of "Pyramus and Thisbe," they are more or less in modern dress. One arrives on bicycle, one is wearing an umbrella hat, Quince (John Kane) sports a bowler, there's a Fair Isle sweater for Flute (Mark Letheren) and a black leather jacket for Bottom. In the forest, doors are apt to pop up out of nowhere.
Ward's stage and costume designs are gorgeous and a little kinky. Opening and closing scenes at the Duke's palace in Athens feature blood-red walls, a swing down stage left, and a single door at the back; the production seems a response to Peter Brook's famously stark white, trapeze-hung "Dream" with this company in '70.
Jennings wears a robe of almost liquid gold lame, and for Duncan, there's a slinky scarlet gown trimmed in red ostrich feathers (the play opens with Hippolyta to-and-fro-ing languorously on that swing, another nod to Brook). Chris Parry's beautiful lighting scheme is the production's subtlest aspect.
Titania resides in the pillow-lined bowl of a giant overturned umbrella, also red, that, along with a few other umbrellas, is apt to disappear into the flies or drop into view surrounded by a "forest" of gently swaying lights, hanging like golden teardrops. Instead of a fog separating the quartet of quarreling young lovers, there are white shrouds, and they, too, rise up, leaving Helena (Emily Raymond), Hermia (Monica Dolan), Lysander (Daniel Evans) and Demetrius (Kevin Robert Boyle) like so many dangling cocoons.
But with the notable exception of Evans, who has an appealing, feisty impetuousness, the kids are sulky or irritating or both. The pumped-up slapstick throughout would be fine if there were room left for any real hunger or yearning among all these couples. But there isn't, just as there's not a twitch of remorse, let alone affection, when Oberon realizes what his trickery has wrought on Titania and sets things right.
Well, at least the eye is always happy, even if the heart yearns for more. Some spacey, New Age music by Ilona Sekacz literally underscores the schizzy nature of the production. When Titania's fairy entourage comes out to attend Bottom-as-ass, that music starts up and an audience member may be forgiven a sense of deja vu: It could be a scene from "Cats."