There’s much enchantment in Christopher Ashley’s midsummer “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at La Jolla Playhouse. His conception of a Victorian hothouse turned topsy-turvy and redeemed by carnality yields rich dividends, at the cost of some self-conscious magical devices and a hapless treatment of the traditionally foolproof lower-class farce.
Captive Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Charlayne Woodard) is portrayed as a Caribbean sensualist with imperial disdain for the stuffy Athenian court. We first see her being fitted for one of those gigantic hoop skirts designed to stifle all sense of the female form, her own form fetchingly visible within a tight wrap of colorful fabric. Clearly King Theseus (Daniel Oreskes) is determined to fetter her in Old World corsets before taking his New World pleasure.
When the quartet of parentally mismatched lovers storms in, wise cookie Woodard conveys wordless contempt at Athens’ refusal to let true romance reign. She falls asleep and it’s her “Dream” we see played out, a fantasy of the freedom she yearns for: Furniture gets upended (puppetry by Basil Twist), curtains swirl, chandeliers turn into floor-based “trees” and stripped-off livery transforms the servants into the hottest fairies this side of a Vegas late-nite show. (Not an inappropriate image, given the Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics and aerial work.)
Ashley’s inspired abandonment of the phrase “young lovers” grants tremendous urgency to the foursome’s forest fling. Lysander (Tim Hopper) and Demetrius (Sean Mahon) are as gray of hair as of temperament. Hermia (Amelia Campbell) already appears convent-ready, and bespectacled Helena (a dazzling J. Smith-Cameron) is one disappointment away from being governess-bound.
Since nothing fuels comedy like sheer desperation, the efforts here to sort out who loves whom become breathlessly funny, complicated by fairy intervention as they’re tripped, goosed and otherwise undressed out of their Victorian frippery into midsummer madness. (David C. Woolard’s costume designs, whether buttoned to the neck or in full deshabille, couldn’t be bettered.)
The excitement is redoubled by the glisteningly cinematic underscoring of Mark Bennett, performed by a live ensemble of pros and members of the San Diego Youth Symphony, with Felix Mendelssohn’s 19th-century musical settings wittily woven in.
Neil Patel’s set, at once lovely and forbidding, probably needs a traditional proscenium house (and a lot more money) to truly make the upside-down-room illusion work. Howell Binkley’s lighting creates deeply moody effects in and out of doors, but much of what it illuminates – the climbing and swinging from fabric, for instance – seems tacked-on rather than organic.
And though it’s a rare “Dream” in which the fairies and lovers outshine the comics, even the often-tedious Oberon and Titania – beautifully doubled here by Woodard and Oreskes – are funnier than this group of rude mechanicals. As free spirits already “liberated” by corporal desire, they don’t really fit into Ashley’s conception anyway, a seeming afterthought to the proceedings.
Their biggest desire is to show off – especially Lucas Caleb Rooney’s smug, charmless Bottom – turning the closing “Pyramus and Thisbe” skit into an overproduced, tasteless charade rather than an eleventh hour riot.