WASHINGTON -- Beginning with its very title, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is the ultimate surrealistic Shakespeare play.
So it's fitting that the design of the Royal Shakespeare Company's magical production at Kennedy Center, on its way to Broadway, is a homage to the great surrealist painter Rene Magritte.
Umbrellas -- a favorite Magritte motif -- are a major feature of Anthony Ward's design. Against a deep blue background, Puck makes his entrance holding onto an umbrella that floats down to the stage, and the bed of Titania, the fairy queen, is a giant, upturned fuchsia umbrella, padded with matching velvet cushions. Titania wafts down from the flies in this plush contraption, and after a spell makes her fall in love with Bottom, the weaver, in the guise of a half-man/half-ass, the two rise heavenward as they embark on their night of erotic bliss.
While such floating iconic imagery -- one character even wears one of Magritte's trademark bowler hats -- is a salute to the artist, other elements in director Adrian Noble's staging pay tribute to the RSC's landmark, acrobatic 1970 interpretation, directed by Peter Brook.
Though that production was all white and this one goes in the opposite direction, with a Crayola-colored palette, a nod is given to Brook in the opening image of Hippolyta sitting on a trapeze-like swing. More significantly, Noble has repeated Brook's choice of double-casting an actor as Theseus, duke of Athens, and Oberon, the fairy king, and an actress as Hippolyta, Theseus' fiancee, and Titania.
And, like Brook, Noble deliberately blurs the dual roles. Alex Jennings and glamorous Lindsay Duncan wear the same basic costumes for both of their characters; when Theseus and Hippolyta return near the end, they merely don gold and silver coats to denote their regal human personages.
Having the same actors portray two of "Midsummer's" three sets of lovers reinforces the connection between the spirit and mortal worlds -- a connection central to this play, in which fairy intervention restores romantic equilibrium in the human realm.
Lessons for mortals
The casting also reinforces the lessons these earth-bound mortals learn from their ethereal counterparts.
Jennings' harsh Theseus seems to gain forbearance from Oberon, and the travails of Duncan's Titania soften her recalcitrant Hippolyta.
In other respects, Noble's approach to fairy land is uneven. Barry Lynch's Puck is more like a tough street punk than a
mischievous sprite. He could use a shave and a haircut, and when he delivers the famous line "Lord, what fools these mortals be!" he gives one of those mortals a swift kick in the backside.
Granted, much of what these fairies are up to is far from innocent, so a nasty Puck has his place. But the director's efforts feel forced instead of fanciful when he uses a cadre of older, craggy-faced men as Titania's attending fairies and has them feign gracefulness to Sue Lefton's choreography and Ilona Sekacz's tinkly music.
Noble is on firmer ground with the rest of the mortal characters -- the four young lovers who complete the play's examination of three levels of love: the nobles, the fairies and the young.
In particular, Monica Dolan is a feisty, Tracey Ullman-like Hermia and gawky Emily Raymond is humorously sympathetic as her friend-turned-rival, tall Helena.
The bumbling tradesmen who perform the "merry and tragical" tale of Pyramus and Thisbe in honor of the royal nuptials take the form of modern-day working-class Brits. Bombastic Desmond Barrit's Bottom, the weaver, is a leather-jacketed motorcyclist of Jackie Gleason girth and bravado (when he is transformed into an ass, the donkey's ears sprout from his motorcycle helmet). Barrit is well-matched with slightly built Mark Letheren's Francis Flute, whose depiction of Thisbe's suicide is hilarious overkill.
In the end, when Hippolyta sees Bottom -- with whom her fairy alter ego, Titania, has had such an unlikely amorous adventure -- the two seem to recognize each other. And, we, in turn, recognize how inexplicable the enchantment of love can be. It is, indeed, a surrealistic dream, and this production captures it.
'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
Where: Kennedy Center, Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, matinees at 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through March 17
$ Call: (800) 444-1324