Maybe the most produced play in San Diego this side of A Christmas Carol. We've seen everything from high-caloric cutsie to Jack O'Brien's magical 1985 staging — David Ogden Stiers and Katherine McGrath as a theatrical (and a tad long in the tooth, as directed) Oberon and Titania.
The play's about transformation. When it begins the laws of Athens are etched in, and as cold as, marble. Hermia and Lysander are in love but have no say, since her father Egeus wants her to marry Demetrius. Duke Theseus - slayer of the Minotaur - sides with Egeus, even though Theseus has freely chosen his own wife, Hippolyta, and they await their nuptials four days hence.
(Which means that they have yet to consummate their bond. Which means that no couple when the play begins is sexually fulfilled - including Egeus, since he's such a snit. And Oberon and Titania are feuding over a changeling boy. Which partially explains why everyone runs around oozing desire).
Three lovers flee, chased by the fourth. They get lost in a wood, reshuffled and realigned. When Theseus finds them, he takes one look and changes his mind. Did magic transform them, and him? Or is it just the momentary magic of theater, airy shapes and vexing dreams made substantial by the approving members of the audience?
Director Ian Talbot has spun the comedy in an unsentimental direction: A Clockwork Orange, marinated in things Punk (including Puck), and performed with freaked-out fright-wigs. It's all edgy attitude. The "Mechanicals" aren't the only "rude" characters - "hard-handed men." Rather than feel, the actors talk tough, as if determined to yell themselves out of the confusing situation.
The concept might work if the actors weren't working so hard.
The result has some inventive moments but is too heavy-handed. Many in the cast erupt lines, without subtext or nuance, and the "festive" comedy grinds on - and on - for three hours.
There is humor, though it comes more from reactions than a character's actions, as when Puck hands Oberon the bright red herb "love in idleness," said to cause love at first sight (and make Titania, the Fairie Queen, fall for an ass). When Oberon takes a whiff, he does a splooey, cross-eyed riff on the famous speech, "I know a bank where the wild thyme blows/Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows," as if tripping on LSD.
And the director includes a heart-stopper: when Hermia (Winslow Corbett, gamest actor of the troupe) just won't keep quiet, the confused males toss her over the rear stage into darkness (not the first: Jeffrey Combs' wild-eyed Puck did the flying leap in 1985).
At the end of Midsummer, Theseus and Hippolyta debate the value of dreams and "antique fables." The rational Theseus says rub the sleepy seeds from your eyes. Things that "imagination bodies forth" are "airy nothing." Poets just give them a "local habitation and a name."
Hippolyta, a Cum Laude grad. of the More to Heaven and Earth School, says guess again: dreams and fables can grow into "something of great constancy;/But howsoever strange and admirable."
(my mentor, James L. Calderwood, added a codicil: "the entire play has demonstrated that reason is itself a dream from which we are always awaking").
The Globe's de-sensitized Midsummer sides with Theseus all the way.
Old Globe Theatre, Lowell Davies Festival Stage, Balboa Park, playing through September 29 [Note: Midsummer runs in repertory with The Merchant of Venice and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead].