Lord, what fools these mortals be! With the wealth of old and new playscripts cluttering drama libraries, why do so many productions return to the same few? Take, if you will, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That warhorse is trotting busily at Classic Stage Company, under the direction of Tony Speciale, while other productions canter away at Theater for the New City and West End Theatre. And yet, truth be told, these mortals could do a lot worse. More than 400 years on, Shakespeare’s arboreal script remains sexy, silly, bouncy, and lyrical. It’s a wonder more directors don’t attempt it.
All this suggests what must have attracted Speciale to the play, and you can glimpse his passion even in this fitful production—as hectically amusing as it is tedious. The retreat to the Athenian woods looks great, certainly, from the rose petals that coat the mulchy floor to the corset Bebe Neuwirth’s dons (Neuwirth herself looks as though she would rather be elsewhere). But much of the play lives for image alone. Speciale rigs much of the action to make the prettiest reflections in the wall-sized mirror cantilevered over the stage, not to connect with the audience on this side of the glass.
He seems nervous that even a minute with only verse for company might bore us wretched, so he stuffs the play with all sorts of distracting business. The fight between the two sets of lovers, for example, becomes as an ecstatic and athletic wrestling routine. Even as the actors doff clothes and inhibitions, the scene contains none of the erotic charge or the pain that the lines suggest. The acting seems almost wholly disconnected from the words. Christina Ricci, as Hermia, does the most of these four to find the emotion in the poetry, but she lacks vocal training and the syllables tumble out more strained and squeakily than they might.
This disengagement from the verse holds mostly true even with the more experienced actors, such as Taylor Mac. Taylor Mac makes a fine and antic Puck, appearing, courtesy of costume designer Andrea Lauer, as a malevolent Harajuku girl in looks ranging from a pink elephant suit to a disco clown to a tree. He pleases well enough whatever the outfit, but he shines disco-ball brightest in his moments of improvisation, scolding one of the lovers for wearing tight jeans, teasing an audience member to hand him his ukulele. It seems as if he’d prefer speak his own words rather than Shakespeare’s. His best line readings are the ones he ad libs. Yet for a few moments, such as when he strums that ukulele and sings his lines, the simple delight of the language very nearly shines through. But then the scene ends and all is rose petals and underwear and brisk dullness again.