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Silky-tongued British actors, uniformed in white long johns, juggle roles in a Shakespeare comedy on a spare set. You could be forgiven for wondering if you’ve seen this before at BAM. The Harvey stage has welcomed several similar London imports in recent seasons: the Donmar Warehouse’s plain, candlelit Twelfth Night and the Globe’s pajama-party Cymbeline. Now Propeller, an all-male troupe directed by Edward Hall (Sir Peter’s son), turns up with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the production aesthetic seems almost part of a franchise.
The impulse is virtually the same: to put Shakespeare back in the hands of actors after decades of glossy director’s theater. But if Hall’s Midsummer is any indication, this isn’t necessarily a progressive development. Propeller’s actors tend to revel in their own devices, employing a physical vocabulary that is jumpy, shouty, and gag-saturated. While the approach doesn’t provide much new insight into a familiar play, it makes for a lively telling of Shakespeare’s story.
Staging Shakespeare today with a male cast sets up a powerful gender lens. (Hall can’t simply call it Elizabethan “authenticity.”) In Midsummer‘s dark psychological forest, there’s plenty of painful sexual confusion to scrutinize: Oberon and Titania’s twisty power struggle; Helena and Hermia’s wounded and bewildered psyches; Lysander and Demetrius’s surprising fierceness. When playing women, Hall’s actors pitch their voices and lighten their limbs, but they neither fully inhabit nor comment on the roles they assume. Subtler choices—with more acknowledgment of human contradictions—would have turned up richer ironies. The company too often falls back on types: Hermia (Jonathan McGuinness) becomes a broach-wearing prude; Titania (Sam Callis) suggests a Margaret Dumont-like grande dame, huffing and harrumphing in response to Oberon’s commands.
In Shakespeare’s twilit late scenes, the ensemble reveals more detail for the male characters. Simon Scardifield gives Puck a fluid androgyny; sulking through the woods in a tutu, clad in candy-striped tights and sporting a Billy Idol haircut, he unleashes sexual mischief like a post-punk pixie. Hall successfully highlights how the five mechanicals’ fraternal joshing both creates and quashes their dreams of transformation. Tony Bell’s Bottom radiates a particularly appealing loutishness; Bell makes him the only character whose metamorphosis in the forest yields something larger—the greater dimension of self he sought as an aspiring thespian. In a comedy celebrated for romantic disorientation, that’s an irony to cherish.