There is, indeed, aerial action in Julie Taymor’s spectacular vision of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but not in the muscular style of her cursed efforts to get “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark” off the ground. The flying feats in this otherworldly fantasy are magical flights, conceived with wit and imagination and executed with technical toys that must have cost a fortune. This is a high-concept show, beautifully designed and erected on the scaffolding of a conviction that Shakespeare’s play is all a dream — that all of life, in fact, is a dream.
The stage of this intimately scaled courtyard theater — the newly completed Brooklyn home of Theater for a New Audience — can be configured every which way, but for this inaugural production, it’s all thrust all the way, making the full-length, almost empty playing space the first eye-popping effect. The only setpiece on the midnight-blue stage is a narrow bed that invites the androgynous Puck (the astonishing Kathryn Hunter) to dream the night away. But no sooner is the creepy-cute sprite tucked into bed than the branches of a skeletal tree reach up from a hidden trap to lift the sleeper up to the rafters, there to disappear in a billowing cloud of white silk. It’s a breathtaking visual effect and the perfect image for the dream state we fall into every night of our lives.
The more earthbound early scenes are set in the Athenian court where the nuptial plans of Duke Theseus (Roger Clark) are interrupted by a domestic dispute between an apoplectic Lord Egeus (Robert Langdon Lloyd) and his daughter, Hermia (Lilly Englert). The willful girl is in love with Lysander (Jake Horowitz) and refuses to marry Demetrius (Zach Appelman), who is her father’s choice. To complicate matters, and to kick the plot where it needs to go, Hermia confides to her best friend Helena (Mandi Masden), who is secretly in love with Demetrius, that she and Lysander are running off to elope.
The staging is subpar for Taymor, and everyone except Lloyd, a Shakespearean actor par excellence, comes undone trying to negotiate the Elizabethan verse. The only eye-candy here is Queen Hippolyta (Okwui Okpokwasili), the Amazon beauty the Duke boasts of having vanquished in bloody battle. Costumer Constance Hoffman has made a living work of art of the statuesque actress, pouring her into a slinky copper costume so opulent that it makes gold look like the baser metal.
But once the plot mechanics are in motion, and the two mismatched couples have made their way to the enchanted woods, the magic takes over. The floor of the forest is drenched in moonlight. Exotic flowers and trees are projected onto that billowing bolt of white silk. And to the eerie strains of Elliot Goldenthal’s otherworldly music, the full cast of woodland fairies and sprites (all played by children) emerges from the shadows.
Taymor has always been a genius at negotiating entrances, but the ones she devises here for Oberon, the King of Shadows (David Harewood, exuding the power of the night), and Titania, the Fairy Queen (Tina Benko, a sliver of silvery white), are exquisite, surpassed in beauty only by Titania’s bower.
Astonishingly, even the rude mechanicals and the silly play they are preparing for the Duke’s wedding come alive in this enchanted place. Max Casella hits his comic mark as Bottom the Weaver, a terrific construction boss for his fellow laborers. Meanwhile, the lovers get into the same comic spirit and earn every laugh they get.
But the night really does belong to the night people — Oberon and Titania, to be sure, but first and foremost, Hunter’s extraordinary Puck, who graciously blesses this new house and everyone in it.