Julie Taymor follows the Jan Kott playbook in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the inaugural production of Theatre for a New Audience–through January 12, 2014–at the new Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. Kott, a Polish critic, who wrote about the comedy in his 1964 seminal text, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, throws the Bard to the Surrealists. Kott’s reasoning for doing so is compelling reading, even if it’s hard, cold, and dirty. The lovers are freed from societal convention, lost to their hormones; in heat. When they finally come to their senses, they will feel guilty, abused, doing the walk of shame. Cruel Nature, blowing milkweed across fields, cares only about the interchangeability of youth, the odds of propagation.
There’s probably also a more personal reason as to why Taymor would want to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream, beyond putting Kott into practice—she’s already directed the play once. Taymor, of course, was publically ousted from Broadway’s Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark in 2011, and she understands more than a little about feeling disgraced. She also knows that the humiliations in A Midsummer Night’s Dream come down especially hard on women. Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, as most know, wakes up to vaguely recall that she’s slept with an ass; Helena, “as ugly as a bear,” barking like a dog (“What worser place can I beg in your love . . . Than to be used as you use your dog?”) feels mocked by two men suddenly fighting for her love. The perverse hitman and henchman (Oberon, the King of the Shadows, and Puck), whom we tend to traditionally think of as merely magical (usually from Romantic productions of the play we know from our youth and Mendelssohn—Shakespeare really did write the play for a wedding celebration), sadistically use power to control the women for their pleasure. Oberon and Titania (played by David Harewood and Tina Benko come ready-made from Kott: “I visualize Titania as a very tall, flat, and fair girl, with long arms and legs, resembling the white Scandinavian girls I used to see on the rue de la Harpe or rue de la Huchette, walking and clinging tightly to Negroes with faces grey or so black that they were almost undistinguishable from the night.” What might surprise Kott is Puck, the trickster, a demon—just what he calls for. Here, however, the role is, uncharacteristically, played by an older woman (Kathryn Hunter, limber, raising her foot to her head like a seven-year-old). Shakespeare, the writer, does not survive without us seeing his own complicity or guilt, either. That Traymor cannot ground or pace the production are obvious criticisms; this is a dream so stampeding, so trampling, that it could only have come from someone listening too intently to her monkey mind. What remains, as a lasting impression, is that she has directed a beautiful allegory, whose coded meanings are for herself–and who needs a Bob Fosse to help coordinate the punctuation.
Despite the indebtedness to Kott, Taymor really does her best work out of the forest, when the dream is over, and she’s back at court with her clowns—doing an atrocious staging of Pyramus and Thisbe. (Joe Grifasi, Max Casella, William Youmans, Jacob Ming-Trent, and Brendan Averett are very, very funny, with special regard for Zachary Infante’s Thisbe). We can inspect and reflect on the lacquer—at the start of the play you might feel like you’re at a Chinese restaurant–the containment, ruffles, and Freudianism now—actually, after the intermission, we do feel like we’re in a dream. At last, too, we can accept the industrial feel of the set and the technology, although I’m not sure Kott would be sold on those two. Most importantly, we can finally make sense of the story. The laughs flow naturally from the text and Taymore stops challenging a wordy playwright, like Shakespeare, with her visual imperative as an avant-garde director, who has done time at LaMama. Whether she means to or not—and she might have meant to—she has come off as the Bard’s upstager, by placing too many images, too frequently in competition with the text. Taymor makes so much happen—children run, botanical fabric billows, puppet animals walk with puppeteers, Acrobats spin, crazy circus car music whizzes, and gravelly voiced actors are nearly impossible to understand—but none help much in elucidating the text. Rather, they invalidate it. A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be hard to follow in any production because of the sameness of the young characters, and its lack of a dramatic, “Shakespearean” opening. When I realized that I thought Taymor was making her actors into puppets—that they couldn’t respond naturally to one another—I felt that she had worked too hard at trying to sell a show that she didn’t trust to simply play.
Some, like me, will be grateful to see the Kott interpretation staged as closely as this, despite the pimping. Others might be glad that Taymor is finding a metaphor to express her own demons. The day before I saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream, after the morning rain, I took a walk in Riverdale Park, along the Hudson in the Bronx. It was windy enough so that leaves seemed to rain and pods discharged their fibers and seeds. All the dog walkers talked about the strangeness of this dark, super-real day. When I passed a small clearing, what came to mind was that a play should be done there, probably in the summer. This is where the randomness and bestiality of A Midsummer Night’s Dream could be understood.
(l to r) Zach Appelman, Lilly Englert, and Jake Horowitz. (Photo by Gerry Goodstein, via Bruce Cohen. All rights reserved.)
Text copyright © 2013 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
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