Theater review: ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at South Coast Repertory
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Southern California can once again boast about having some of the sunniest weather in our snow-blanketed nation. But now it has a big, bright, daffy rainbow to brag about as well. Mark Rucker’s staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at South Coast Repertory brings an eye-popping infusion of color to this ever-popular Shakespearean revel.
The play has a history of drawing out the more playful sides of directors. Peter Brook took this to vertiginous heights in his landmark revival from the 1970s. And just last summer, Christopher Ashley served up a lighthearted “Midsummer” at La Jolla Playhouse that was filled with shape-shifting scenery and seductive acrobatics.
Rucker, moving in a pop-cultural/pop-art direction that wants first and foremost to entertain, treats the work like a rave. Once the swanky elegance of the Athenian court -- brightened with paparazzi flashbulbs -- is left behind, the stage transforms into a frenzied disco landscape, where fairies frolic with half-naked abandon and humans plunge into amorous tailspins. Clearly, Puck (Rob Campbell) isn’t the only drug dealer in this Grecian wood.
The production design, mixing and matching time periods in a patchwork aesthetic that has its own marvelous integrity, is a font of surprise. Cameron Anderson’s sets, shifting from a blinding white formality to a feverish outdoor Oz, find contemporary analogies for classical enchantment. Lap Chi Chu’s lighting encourages our leap into the surreal. And Nephelie Andonyadis’s jaunty costumes leave the workaday world a million miles behind. This isn’t a musical adaptation per se, but it sure steps lively. John Ballinger and Ken Roht’s music infuses the trendy nightclub setting with grooves both slow and fast. And Roht’s choreography intensifies the antic momentum with moves that are often variations of hypnotic body flailing.
The pleasures here are theatrical rather than dramatic, as is frequently the case with “Midsummer,” a play that’s patterned more like a dance than a character-centered comedy. But there’s a remarkable clarity to the storytelling. Part of this is the good diction of the principal players. (The language may not be conveyed with tremendous nuance, but it has the great benefit of being crisply articulated.) The bulk of the credit, however, belongs to Rucker, an associate artistic director at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and an SCR veteran, for the way he vibrantly organizes the multi-layered plot.
The play’s four confused young lovers could hardly be more flamboyantly characterized. Hermia (Kathleen Early) is not just short (as specified) but bubbly and pert. The love of her life, Lysander (Nick Gabriel), has an unexpected nerdy-cute appeal. Demetrius (Tobie Windham) is a lug who won’t take Hermia’s “no” for an answer. And lovelorn Helena (Dana Green), obsessed with an indifferent Demetrius, looks like a gawky librarian with self-esteem issues.
Their flight from Athens to sort out this bundle of romantic issues brings them into a realm ruled by Oberon (Elijah Alexander) and Titania (Susannah Schulman), the king and queen of the fairies, who are momentarily fighting over possession of a changeling boy. Portrayed by the same actors who play Theseus, Duke of Athens, and his bride-to-be Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, Oberon and Titania set an otherworldly note for their train of club-kid followers, most especially Campbell’s Puck, a raffish troublemaker who could double as the Master of Ceremonies in “Cabaret.”
And then there is the troupe of blue-collar workers intent on performing a play for Theseus and Hippolyta’s upcoming nuptials. The star of this group, which travels around in a decorative caravan that should be in a found-art exhibit, is Bottom (Patrick Kerr), the weaver who’s transformed by Puck into a donkey man. Kerr brings a quality of suppressed astonishment that occasionally recalls the inspired lunacy of Martin Short, especially after a drugged Titania takes a liking to the metamorphosed creature.
Riotous as much of this is, it should be noted that the production trades subtlety for boldness. (The exaggerated performance style results in a kind of human animation.) Not all of the humorous excesses pay off, but the work is never dull and several scenes (including the play within the play, in which Bottom gets to strut his mirthful, tragic stuff at the end) provoke seismic laughs from the audience.
The poetic depths of “Midsummer” aren’t easy to illuminate at high romping speed. But the hues of this staging are so festive that it’s possible to overlook the loss. When was the last time a Shakespeare comedy infected you with its giddiness? We may not need a cure for the winter blues in this part of the country, but Rucker’s revival provides a mighty antidote.
-- Charles McNulty
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends. Feb. 20. $28 to $66. (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.