Shakespeare’s Sonnet 148 complains: “O me, what eyes hath love put in my head,/ Which have no correspondence with true sight!/ Or if they have, where is my judgment fled,/ That censures falsely what they see aright?” In this sense, love isn’t blind; it misreads. It trumps reason and judgment and — when aided by Puck’s love-in-idleness juice in A Midsummer Night’s Dream — spins the known world on its ear.
For the La Jolla Playhouse, director Christopher Ashley stages Dream as if the audience saw through love’s errant eyes. Neil Patel’s set opens with tall, silver walls, a two-story fireplace, and a quintet of musicians around a baby grand piano. David C. Woolard’s Victorian costumes — choking collars for the men and corsets for the women — cinch the period, as do the classical strains of Felix Mendelssohn.
In the play, rigid Athenian law dominates. Duke Theseus tells young Hermina, who wants to marry against her stern father Egeus’s wishes, “To you your father should be as a god.” She’s just a wax form that Egeus “imprinted,” Theseus adds, and he has the power to “disfigure” her if he wants.
Four lovers flee from Theseus’s repressive court to a palace wood three miles from Athens. Transformations and mismatches, prompted by Puck’s flowery juice, provide surrealistic, ocular proof for Sonnet 148. To complete the inversion, Shakespeare has Bottom, the weaver/thespian become an ass and — in theater’s most improbable combination — beloved of Titania, the Fairy Queen.
When the lovers flee, the playhouse set goes on tilt. The piano rises, spins, and dangles upside-down in midair; the fireplace now burns aloft; the chandelier, a ring of crystal globes, rises from the floor. Curtains sway, and white birds or butterflies — no, wait: they’re musical scores! — flutter about. Officious maids become sprites and fairies. One of them, Cobweb (Tatyana Petruk), twists and floats down two long silk sashes. The lovers don’t flee to a wood. They enter a dreamscape by Cirque du Soleil.
A large orchestra performs Mendelssohn and original work by Mark Bennett (musicians come from the San Diego Youth Symphony; like the San Diego Rep, which uses students from the School of Creative and Performing Arts for Hairspray, the playhouse found a creative way to have live instruments performed onstage). Mendelssohn’s feather-light/sprinter-fleet music accompanies scenes and almost every word. Even the young changeling, coveted by both Oberon and Titania, plays a flute. And when Titania (the wonderful Charlayne Woodard) and the First Fairy (Amanda Naughton, in fine voice) sing, the production soars.
Visually, it’s a big Julie Taymor–like dazzler. The director has encouraged near-constant movement, be it a prop or a person (one of the fairies, for example, provides physical gestures for a lover’s pain). But often the busy movements, and the accompanying music, upstage the speakers. Other choices are also questionable.
In the script, the lovers are teenagers — and most likely young ones at that, Hermia and Helena being around 14 or 15. In keeping with his upside-down approach, Ashley cast much older actors in the roles. But they behave like frantic teens: almost every move is outsized, and many so forced they make doing comedy look like hard work.
Scholars quibble that the actor playing Philostrate, Theseus’s master of revels, cannot also play Puck, since the script affords no room for the costume change. Somehow Martin Moran pulls it off (and puts it on, as t’were, in record time). Although his Puck’s a mite long in the tooth, Moran gives the final speech (“if we shadows have offended”) a memorable reading.
The real “juice” of Dream isn’t Puck’s world-warping love-in-idleness: it’s the language. But few in the cast relish it (among them Jonathan McMurtry’s tyrannical Egeus and Daniel Oreskes’s sometimes stiff Theseus/Oberon). Others treat it like utilitarian prose. The worst offender is Lucas Caleb Rooney’s Bottom. Shakespeare laced this part with built-in humor. But Rooney, as solemn as Hamlet, neglects malapropisms (“odious” for “odorous”), misses verbal jokes (“I see a voice” should get a big laugh), and, when Bottom wants to play Thisbe as well as Pyramus, throws the egocentric intrusion, which practically defines the character in an instant, away.
At the beginning of Act 5, Theseus and Hippolyta discuss dreams (and, according to my unerring mentor, James L. Calderwood, theatrical illusion). Ever the rationalist, Theseus says dreams (especially envisioned by lunatics, lovers, and poets) are just tricks of “strong imagination.” They merely give “airy nothing a local habitation and a name.” Then vanish. Hippolyta disagrees (in the process suggesting parity in their marriage). “Fancy’s images,” she says, can “grow to something of great constancy.” The playhouse’s Dream aligns more with Theseus than Hippolyta: a visually stunning, entertaining evening, but not something of “great constancy.” ■