William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is believed to have been written around 1596 for an actual wedding festivity of a prominent person. No one can agree on whose wedding, but one thing is fairly certain, the guests could not have had a better time than did the audience at the opening last Friday evening at McCarter Theater. Countless productions have taken great liberties with the play’s mixture of fantasy and folklore. The outrageous farce of some scenes and the elongated hallucinatory magic seem to inspire directors to go bananas trying to bring new freshness to one of the Bard’s most fragile but nevertheless beguiling comedies.
There are no bananas but plenty of fruitcakes in this delectable production, under the spell of conjuring director Tina Landau. This “Dream” is not only embraced by an original score and songs by GrooveLily, a New York-based trio, but is set in motion by them. This is a particularly lively, comedy-driven production that also revels in the formidable and fantastical.
Undoubtedly the result of too much rehearsing, Gene Lewin (drums), Valerie Vigota (electric violin), and Brendan Milburn (piano) have fallen fast asleep on their blue neon-lit bandstand as the curtain rises. They are off on a concerted dream to which we are all invited. The small black frame that has contained their bandstand expands to reveal a thoroughly intoxicating dreamscape. The trio becomes part of a magical world as musical creators and conduits and as characters/participants in the action. Their music — sensual, glib, romantic, and raucous — delights throughout with its varied and eclectic musical vocabulary traversing rock, blues, Broadway, folk, and jazz, even a passing nod to Kurt Weill, but mostly defined by its originality and independence. A program note acknowledges that all the lyrics are written by Shakespeare (no wonder they are so good) with exception of the songs “When I Dream” and “While You Were Sleeping” (almost as good). Curiously the program does not list the songs, some of which are no more than snippets. We are transported to the silver and white royal court of Athens, its courtiers in white and gold 18th century attire and gathered beneath flickering sconces that adorn the walls.
Landau’s concept of fairydom is delightfully capricious, as it fairly re-invents our belief in fairies; Landau has opted to ignore their dark side, which usually affords another dimension to the story. However, she commands our attention with her vigorous and lively approach to the action scenes. There are issues of pacing that will undoubtedly be ironed out during the run. Otherwise, there is rarely a dull moment as we watch the consistently strong stage pictures, including a floating garden for Titania. An ensemble member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company, Landau is a director/writer who takes risks with risky projects. Her lauded collaboration with composer Adam Guettel on the musical “Floyd Collins” is a notable achievement, as was the delightfully re-vitalized Gershwin musical “Of Thee I Sing” for the Paper Mill Playhouse, a few seasons back.
Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (Ellen McLaughlin, who also doubles as Titania, the Fairy Queen) appears elevated for a fitting, as if she were the figure to be placed on the top of an all-white wedding cake. She is about to be wed to Theseus, Duke of Athens (Jay Goede, who doubles as Oberon, the Fairy King.). As you may guess, this wedding isn’t about to go off without a hitch. There is nothing 18th century about the trendy, mod clothes worn by those love-possessed Athenian youths, Lysander (James Martinez) and Demetrius (Will Fowler), who both claim to love Hermia (Stacey Sargeant), who prefers Lysander.
The young lovers were well-paired and perfectly at ease with the rhymed couplets either sung or spoken. But Sargeant’s Hermia was an especially delightful little vixen, bringing a vivacious and exhilarating quality on stage “though she be but little, she is fierce.” And there’s nothing 18th century about the hip body language or rock-styled singing that is ignited by their passions. Things are only destined to get more complicated when Hermia and Lysander take refuge in a forest, wherein they are confronted by Helena (Brenda Withers), who still loves Demetrius, who loves, well, you know.
It’s also into the woods for Shakespeare’s most adored amateur actors, here re-considered as city laborers in hard hats, who meet to rehearse “The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby.” The laughs they generate are prompted and sustained easily by Lea DeLaria, who assumes the role of Bottom, a city sanitation worker. DeLaria, who earned her Broadway stripes in “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “On the Town,” has her best role yet. She makes an attention-getting entrance across an aisle, hauling a huge garbage can. Although I didn’t know what to make of that raw carrot she periodically pulls out of her overalls and chomps on, I was smitten with her as much as was the drugged Titania, when Bottom is turned into a most endearing ass. DeLaria gets plenty of comic mileage playing Thisby, whose protracted death does not come easily or without the prone DeLaria’s tuba solo. As Pyramus, Demond Green gives drag a new dimension and brings down the house with his octave-spanning vocal dexterity. Gravel-voiced Stephen Payne gets his prescribed laughs as the boozing Peter Quince, and as Hermia’s stubborn father, Egeus.
As designed by Louisa Thompson, the forest is a breathtaking vision of silver ladders, poles, harnesses, and swings on which muscular fairies float and fly with grace in their spandex briefs, with credit to the aerial design/choreography of Christopher Harrison. The forest is also prone to whimsical changes of weather from falling snow to falling autumn leaves, the thunder of an incoming storm, and the appearance of a starry, moonlit sky. Committed to stealing some of the thunder and doing so is Guy Adkins, as a glistening Puck, with a flair for accessorizing his red briefs, and a penchant for mischief.
Best of all, this production is performed with an awareness of its bubbly poetry. Combining gaiety of spirit and belief in the incidents, a diverting evening has been created. Luckily, and considering the ability of many of the performers, we don’t have to be overly concerned with the depths of character analysis, since the play’s interest seems primarily to deal with incidents and coincidence, and in this case, everyone’s ability to perform the Macarena.
Kudos to costumer Michael Krass, who knows who to dress and undress with equal panache. This first co-production between McCarter Theater and the Paper Mill Playhouse (where it will be performed beginning April 19 through May 21) is a visually stunning and generously funny evening of entertainment.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” through April 9, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. $25 to $53. Visit www.mccarter.org or call 609-258-2787.