Producer Carole Shorenstein Hays invited the Royal Shakespeare Company to San Francisco (with subsequent stands in Chicago, Washington and New York) in the hope of starting an ongoing touring relationship. The question, of course, is whether the same “Best of Broadway” subscribers who have recently fed on such standard revivals as “Hello, Dolly!” and “West Side Story” will prove as enchanted by high-ticket Shakespeare.
The prognosis is very good indeed: Lusty, funny, vibrantly colorful, Adrian Noble’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” sets out to dazzle, and it certainly succeeds. There are times when this gorgeous production looks like a mere perfect bauble — nothing to sneeze at, of course, but one without the deeper interpretive originality and rangier moods that might leave a more lasting impression. By evening’s end, however, Noble has managed to suggest depth beyond all the surface fun. Despite some unevenness in the ensemble and a few other miscellaneous flaws (Ilona Sekacz’s score being the major hurdle), this is a blissful “Night” out.
Like so many “Midsummers,” Noble’s version doesn’t find its feet until protagonists leave civilization for the inhibition-loosening forest. There, eloping Hermia (Monica Dolan) and Lysander (Daniel Evans) are pursued by her official fiancee, Demetrius (Kevin Robert Doyle), and his own unwanted devotee, Helena (Emily Raymond). Meanwhile, the local fairy court is divided, royal couple Oberon (Alex Jennings) and Titania (Lindsay Duncan) quarreling over possession of a coveted wee “Indian pageboy” (never seen in this production).
Oberon dispatches his sprite-emissary Puck (Barry Lynch) to set aright romantic troubles among the mortal visitors, and also to dog Titania by training her bewitched eye on Bottom (Desmond Barrit), crudest member of a proletarian thespian group passing by as well. Noble’s bacchanalia has the benign surrealism of Magritte — not for nothing is Titania’s bed a giant, upturned red umbrella. A hundred dangling bulbs glimmer like fireflies, standing in for the woods. In this sumptuously lit and colored minimalist playpen, true selves are revealed, as defenses collapse.
Sex is the theme here, but Noble gets past the usual hip-thrusting smirkiness to convey a real sense of carnal liberation. Puck usually sets the play’s tenor, and Lynch is no pixie — he’s a virile, pansexual gift-giver, dispensing eros at every turn. Accordingly, almost any exchange (whether knockabout, pleading or threatening) can require the straddling of one character by another. Titania indulges her “ass” lover via dominatrix-style “tail” whipping and foot massage to you-know-where. Elsewhere, the director suggests this textually hetero orgy might take a Kinsey Scale spin at slightest provocation. Anthony Ward’s costumes consist of banner-bright diaphanous tunics, shoulder-strapped dresses, overalls — anything that comes off in a handy flash (though nothing ever does).
The production gains its measure of heart from the warmth with which Athenian aristocrats, returned to hearth, greet those clowns’ endearingly inept “Pyramus and Thisby” sketch. We realizethey have grown not just unfettered, but have grown up. Double-casting between the Athens and forest courts becomes significant rather than merely economical in this final scene. A few sly directorial winks suggest that Theseus/Oberon et al. may actually be the same: Confident sexual maturity can accommodate more than one role-playing identity, after all.
There are signs some of these actors have been playing their roles a mite too long. Duncan cuts a glamorous figure yet seems on auto-pilot; Jennings tends to bellow for actorly effect, though both his parts score some droll moments. Barrit gets laughs in too practiced a manner, though the players’ gang is a finely tuned unit.
Among the youthful lovers, Dolan and Raymond’s exasperated, veiny-necked heroines rather eclipse their suitors; Evans is particularly simpy. But all four are a game delight in their most physical moments, which choreographer Sue Lefton pushes to the edge of actual dance. Lynch’s Puck is the show’s boldest stroke — and his turn as Philostrate one of its wittiest miniatures.
The one real downer is that music score, whose Vangelis-like synth banality seems more apt for figure skating than sylvan frolics. That aside, the package couldn’t be pacier or more technically sharp. Grade-A miking neutralized pitfalls expected in the large Golden Gate auditorium.