If you were a director whose godlike reputation had recently suffered a nightmare involving flying pests, malicious sprites, and braying asses, what project would be more fitting than A Midsummer Night’s Dream to mark your re-emergence into the world of sanity and sunlight? This question is hypothetical, of course, with no bearing on, say, Julie Taymor. That wunderkind of mask and puppet, who led The Lion King to a record $1 billion on Broadway so far, did get herself trashed in a Spider-Man debacle of her own devising. Nevertheless, she has thoroughly if implausibly denied any link between the recuperative spirit of Shakespeare’s greatest comedy and the fury, firings, and lawsuits that arose from her adventure with Marvel’s cartoon hero.
So pin the larger relevance of this marvelous new production on the venue instead. After 34 years of borrowing other homes, Theater for a New Audience at last has its own, the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, a spider’s-leap from BAM in the downtown-Brooklyn cultural district. Midsummer — which, after all, concerns the production of a play to bless a new marriage — could not have been an apter choice for its opening, nor a lovelier fit for the space.
The way Taymor fills that space may remind you of why she was a MacArthur genius in the first place — but also, a little, of how she might have spun herself into trouble with Spidey. She has always worked best with an economy of imagery, and here, though the production is stuffed with visual pleasures, they mostly derive from a few materials and motifs. These include bamboo poles, psychedelic flowers, moths and bats and grass and pillows. But the cleverest is also the simplest: a bedsheet. As the play starts, Puck tucks himself to sleep beneath one, which then rises 30 feet in the air and expands to become a billowing heaven that fills the whole theater. The rest of the show will evolve from this protean bedsheet, as indeed humanity does in general. And as if to show that she is not afraid of flying despite the falling bodies at the Foxwoods, Taymor has Puck rising with it, later to be reborn through a slit in its center, which does not look at all vaginal.
Flying, projections, shadows, mime, tribal makeup, terrific music (by Elliot Goldenthal): Taymor has used every trick she knows to turn the black box of the Polonsky into a cabinet of curiosities. Then again, it was well designed for that purpose. As configured for Midsummer, the auditorium is a deep-thrust rectangle, with the audience on three sides; its great height and narrow upper seating levels are reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Globe. (The space can accommodate many other formats, as we will no doubt see in TNA’s production of King Lear in March, and Ionesco’s The Killer in May.) Taymor and her set designer, Es Devlin, use the closeness and verticality to engulf the audience in the familiar story and make it seem, once again, wild and dangerous. Still, they probably did not intend for a plank of wood to fall into the orchestra seating during a press performance. (No one was hurt.)
But danger is, as always, part of Taymor’s point. These dark nights of the soul are not just about flowers and dewdrops. In one of her few departures from received Midsummer practice — the script is trimmed but never warped — Taymor has cast twenty prepubescent children to play the fairies and all the other untamed forces that rationality can’t touch. They manipulate those bamboo poles to boggle the lovers in the woods, they flap like bats and twitch their feet like squirrels, they hoot and howl and roll along the floor to make obstacle courses. Charmingly, they are guests at the culminating wedding. They are beautiful and at times terrifying.
The four lovers are beautiful and at times, alas, boring. It’s one of the ironies of Taymor’s basically visual and conceptual gift that her actors are often more expressive masked than barefaced. Here, with only stereotypes to hide behind, they are strangely wooden: Demetrius a junior account executive, Lysander a long-haired hippie, Hermia a spoiled Heather. Of the four, only Helena (Mandi Masden) seems to be an actual young woman, unconstrained by category. That’s partly the way the role is written. But for whatever reason, Taymor allows the spurned girl the production’s only moment of fully human emotion: the unbearable realization that Demetrius, who has spent the play rejecting her vilely, really really likes her. (Is it Hermia’s Sally Field moment, or Taymor’s?) Otherwise, whenever the quartet’s story is in the forefront, you soon long for the next theatrical coup.
Luckily, the coups do keep coming. Constance Hoffman’s costumes, Donald Holder’s lighting, and Sven Ortel’s projections all get diva turns without neglecting a complicated story that exists in at least three worlds. The lovers’ clothing disintegrates into tattered dishabille as the dream denatures them, and yet this brings them closer to their real nature. The “rude mechanicals” are characterized by monochrome workwear and by furnishings, including a Barcalounger, upholstered with sod. (Less fortunately, they are also characterized by another checklist of stereotypes: Bottom’s a Guido, Flute a cholo, Starveling a fey couturier.) But it’s the fairy realm of Oberon and Titania (David Harewood and Tina Benko) that inspires the best of Taymor’s pull-out-the-stops magic. With his gorgeous muscularity and quasi–Lion King getup, and her albino Bride of Frankenstein-meets-jellyfish allure, they make an awesome couple. They are also among the performers who are experienced enough to act through their Taymorization. Benko is especially luscious when awakening to her erotic feelings for Bottom; it’s a beautifully calibrated illustration of the joy of shamelessness.
But the production’s thrilling Puck most fully embodies Taymor’s spirit and best practice. Though played by a woman in her mid-fifties — the avant-garde darling Kathryn Hunter — this Puck is genderless and ageless. She’s also about the size of a footstool, with lobster-colored hair, a whiteface mask, and operable limbs like a Hasbro Transformer. Hunter gives a brilliant physical performance, part yoga, part cartoon; and though it is more presentational than emotional, as may befit a fairy, it is somehow fully satisfying. I can only assume this is possible because there is, behind the sequence of perfectly calibrated poses, a person fully equipped with human feeling. And this suffices.
At least it suffices with good material: More Shakespeare, Ms. Taymor, please; less wigged-out pop culture anthropology. As for TNA, let Titania have the final benediction: “Hand in hand, with fairy grace / Will we sing, and bless this place.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center through January 12.