It’s raining men these days on British stages, at least when it comes to Shakespeare. Artistic director Mark Rylance has made a practice of using all-male casts at the Globe Theater (he occasionally redresses the balance with an all-female staging), and now Edward Hall arrives at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with a frisky, femme-free production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Their approaches are by no means identical, proof that such gender play is not merely a gimmick but a malleable means that can be used to pursue a variety of theatrical ends. Both artists cite historical precedent, of course, but Rylance’s “original practices” productions strive to downplay the presence of men in female roles, using wigs, unobtrusive makeup and traditional Elizabethan costumes.
Hall and his merry band, on the other hand, play up the absurdity. Nobody wears a wig here. Actually, Robert Hands, a standout as an unusually determined Helena, is seriously balding. Playing the fairy queen Titania, Sam Callis’ lack of decolletage is framed in black feathers. (He could step into the role of Frank N. Furter in “The Rocky Horror Show” without even a touchup.) The garish makeup and costume designer Michael Pavelka’s quirky assortments of corsets and skirts don’t disguise the actors’ real gender; if anything, they enhance it.
Indeed, this is a testosterone-fueled production from start to finish. The actors are exceptionally young and full of boisterous energy, flinging male hormones all over the place. All the characters seem a bit crankier than usual here, spoiling for a fight. Conflict is put in bold relief; conciliation is merely a suspension of operations.
The approach underscores Shakespeare’s comical take on love as a competitive sport, with winners exulting in triumph over the losers. And paradoxically, by eliminating one sex entirely, Hall has outlined the play’s structure as a multilayered battle of the sexes.
The evening’s funniest scene is the fracas that arises among the four young lovers following Puck’s mischievous interference in their confused romances. With Hands’ ill-used Helena giving as good as she gets, for once, it’s like a hockey brawl.
There is more priceless slapstick in the play’s last scene, in which the rude mechanicals — exceptionally well handled throughout — present their “tedious brief” spectacle to the court.
Tony Bell is superlative as their hilariously self-important ringleader, Bottom, while Simon Scardifield, who doubles as a refreshingly un-puckish Puck, has a field day with a mechanical dog Starveling uses as a prop. Hall’s actors are such skilled physical comedians that their deft grasp of Shakespeare’s language almost goes unnoticed.
The ebullient staging does shortchange the play’s more poignant aspects. The troupe is so busy delighting in the farcical aspects of Shakespeare’s comedy that it fails to take proper note of the real ache that underscores this tale of love’s irrationality.
And, irresistible as these fellows are, audiences may be divided on the charms of their intermission concert. Tearing through the lobby just after the curtain has come down, they assemble in a pack to serenade the audience with a few thematically relevant pop tunes (“I’m a Believer”) and a few jokes.
Yes, they’re adorable, but this is taking the evening’s ingratiating spirit a little too far. In a three-hour night at the theater, some of us cherish intermission as an entertainment-free zone.