Peter Hall’s awkward production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” comes as a substantial disappointment after the English director’s far more successful staging of “Measure for Measure,” with which “Dream” alternates in rep at the Ahmanson. The level-headed elegance that Hall employs in “Measure” is entirely absent from this scattered staging, which not infrequently comes close to suggesting parody.
The big plus is a surprisingly agile and unselfconscious Richard Thomas as the sprite Puck. He not only cavorts across the stage half-naked but even insinuates a few sexually suggestive poses into his schtick, in which he displays canine fealty to Oberon (Peter Francis James). Indeed, one of this production’s few high points finds an inverted Puck getting his belly rubbed by Oberon. Thomas might deliver some of his lines a little more slowly, but for the most part, he shines.
What James and Hall have in mind for Oberon is less clear. Neither threatening nor benign, this Oberon blusters without delighting. James possesses an excellent, resonant voice, but what’s with the way John Gunter dressed him? He looks like a refugee from a touring production of “Cats.”
Kelly McGillis is even worse off with her unalluring Titania. Frumpy and with frizzy hair, this once-beguiling actress looks a fright. Her less-then-sensual delivery doesn’t help, either.
David Dukes, so memorable as Lucio in “Measure,” proves a completely flat Theseus, Duke of Athens. Cindy Katz adds a freckle of character to Hippolyta, but the only thing suggesting this queen’s exotic, warrior past is a faux leopard-skin shawl and a bit of armor.
Demetrius (Mark Deakins) and Lysander (Hamish Linklater) aren’t parts suited for splashy effect, and we get none. There’s a bit more to Jennifer Dundas Lowe’s Hermia and Kathryn Meisle’s Helena, but not enough. Curiously, it’s Charles Janasz, in the minuscule role of Hermia’s father Egeus, who makes the best impression of the bunch, in a polished, comic turn.
After Puck, it’s the mechanicals — Quince, Bottom, Flute, Starveling, Snout and Snug — who provide something to praise. Especially fine is Brian Murray’s Bottom (the vet thesp proves just as good in an entirely different role in Hall’s “Measure”). None of these actors overplay the comedy, but neither do they give it short shrift. Entirely comfortable in their rustic roles, they make “the most lamentable comedy” of “Pyramus and Thisby” (the Bard’s ingenious play within his play), this production’s highlight.
Though Richard Pilbrow’s lighting offers some slight reward, Gunter’s minimal, low-rent sets prove no better than his costumes, most of which are boring Elizabethan designs. The use of elementary-school kids to play assorted fairies and whatnot brings a welcome freshness to the proceedings, but it also reminds one just how amateurish this whole affair has turned out.
“Dream” was last staged at the Music Center in 1990, when Kenneth Branagh brought his Renaissance Theater Co. to the Mark Taper Forum. That production was also flawed, but at least Branagh tried something different. Hall, an essentially conservative director, has allowed his cast to deliver gossamer as though it were plywood. The result serves no one.