Review: ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

Be grateful for the fairies. The quartet of sprites in Martha Clarke's take on "A Midsummer Night's Dream" glide, spin and soar across the vast stage at the Loeb Drama Center. Sensually choreographed with exquisite nuance, they cast a spell over the production that stays with you into the night and into your dreams.

Be grateful for the fairies. The quartet of sprites in Martha Clarke’s take on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” glide, spin and soar across the vast stage at the Loeb Drama Center. Sensually choreographed with exquisite nuance, they cast a spell over the production that stays with you into the night and into your dreams.

Clarke, a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, understands the magic of meaning in movement. But it’s in the demands of text — this is her first try at Shakespeare — that she loses her balance. Minus the flights of fairies, the rest of this production is earthbound without being particularly well grounded.

The show starts promisingly with Theseus alone in a chair dreaming, as a lone feminine fairy delicately swoops across the long horizontal expanse upstage, revealing what is playing in his simmering id. But soon enough, he is called by his unhappy wife to listen to the pleas of a quartet of young lovers: Hermia wants to wed Lysander, not the marriage her father has arranged with the smitten Demetrius, who’s the object of her galpal Helena’s affections. So lyrical imagery gives way to the necessities of plot and plodding speech by the ill-at-ease and unfocused staging.

Hope that the four lovers — not to mention actors — may be transformed into someone more engaging when they flee into the woods is soon dashed, for this forest is one where you are less likely to go to be liberated and more likely to wait for Godot. It’s a moonscape, with not a tree, bush or hill to be found, just an arid land of gray soil and a series of smoking holes where only trouble — or Puck — reside.

Obviously, Clarke’s interpretation of “Midsummer” is more dark, often literally so with James Ingalls’ low-wattage lighting. One doesn’t always demand a sunnier forest — we are talking about hidden desires and subconscious here — but Clarke’s woods seems to be lit during a lunar eclipse.

More significant is that she hasn’t found the wherewithal to make the visuals — whatever they may be — connect to the text and to the acting.

Instead, the stage is stripped of its lushness and its light, but little is revealed in return. Where one is supposed to see many possibilities and ambiguities in the forest — fear, love, lust, joy — here our perceptions are simply muddy, confused and unfocused.

One misses those wondrous Clarke touches that distill a character, a story or a theme in a move or a moment that can take one’s breath away, and that she ably demonstrated in such dance-theater shows as “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” “Vienna Lusthaus,” “Miracolo d’Amore” and the ACT musical “Hans Christian Andersen.”

Still, many of the actors acquit themselves well. Jesse J. Perez’s Puck comes across as a punked-out teacher’s assistant to John Campion’s professorial Oberon, who micromanages this otherworld, just as his Theseus does. Karen MacDonald radiates sensuality as the independent Titania and cool frustration as Hippolyta.

As players in the world’s worst theater company, this production reunites some of the best of ART’s longtime assemblage of veteran actors: Will LeBow as Peter Quince, Remo Airaldi as Francis Flute, Jeremy Geidt as Snug the Joiner and Thomas Derrah as Nick Bottom. Derrah, especially takes command of any scene he is in, even when wearing an ass’s head.

But at the end of the show, it’s not the complexities of human relationships or the dualities of our nature that stay with us. It’s not the richness of the language or the depth of the themes, for all of these points are lost on the dark and lonely landscape of the Loeb.

Instead, we are left with the flying fairies beckoning us to dream again, in another production.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Mass; 556 seats; $69 top

Production

An American Repertory Theater production of a play by William Shakespeare in two acts. Directed by Martha Clarke.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Robert Israel; lighting, James Ingalls; original music, Richard Peaslee; sound, David Remedios; dramaturg, Gideon Lester; Flying by Foy. Opened Jan. 14, 2004; reviewed Jan. 16. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Theseus/Oberon - John Campion Hippolyta/Titania - Karen MacDonald Egeus/Peter Quince - Will LeBow Hermia - Michi Barall Lysander - Tug Coker Demetrius - Daniel Talbott Helena - Katharine Powell Nick Bottom - Thomas Derrah Francis Flute - Remo Airaldi Tom Snout - Will Peebles Snug the Joiner - Jeremy Geidt Robin Starveling - Jonathan Broke Puck - Jesse J. Perez Fairies - Erica Berg, Lisa Giobbi, Olivia Grant, Paola Styron Indian Boy - Snow Guilfoyle
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