Shakespeare by way of Oz

Review: Director Joe Calarco shakes up the order and characters of this light-hearted play. The results aren't always dreamy.

November 16, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

You don't expect reverential treatment from a director whose best-known Shakespeare production is a four-man interpretation of "Romeo and Juliet." In contrast to that stripped-down, off-Broadway hit, Washington's Shakespeare Theatre has allowed director Joe Calarco to pull out all the stops in his adaptation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

The results, while intriguing, are mixed. What Calarco has created on designer Michael Fagin's boldly skewed set is more of a "Midwinter Night's Nightmare" -- an impression not entirely as negative as it might sound.

The nightmare element comes from Calarco's conceit that the scenes in the fairy kingdom are actually a hallucination of Hermia's, who is portrayed by Tricia Paoluccio as a rich, willful, reluctant, 1950s-esque bride-to-be.

On the night of her rehearsal dinner, Hermia faints while being fastened into her wedding gown by her dressmaker, Bottom (Floyd King). She then finds herself in a topsy-turvy world -- part Oz, part Wonderland, part Lilliput -- dominated by a giant crystal chandelier that appears to have crashed through an ice flow.

With a Christmas carol heard in the background before Hermia passes out, the season seems to be winter -- except for the occasional Caribbean influence in composer Jon Magnussen's incidental music, the swimsuit-like costumes seen on the fairies and, oh yes, the press material that claims it is eternal summer in the fairy world.

This seasonal confusion is among the oddities of Calarco's interpretation, which liberally reorganizes the text. One of the more unusual aspects of Shakespeare's play is that instead of having a central character or characters, it divides the action among four sets of characters -- the royals, represented by Theseus, Duke of Athens, and his betrothed, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons; a rag-tag group of workmen, or "mechanicals," who hope to stage a play at the Duke's nuptials; the feuding fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania; and four young mortals, Hermia, Helena, Demetrius and Lysander.

In most productions, the personalities of the two young women are virtually interchangeable, as are those of their young men. This tends to make them the least colorful and interesting of the play's various pairs of lovers. Calarco, however, has turned these four into the focal point, perhaps feeling that modern audiences can more easily identify with them than with fairies or royalty.

The director has, in fact, eliminated Theseus and Hippolyta. Instead of having the royals serve as authority figures, Andrew Long and Valerie Leonard (the fairy king and queen) double as Hermia's parents, and some of Theseus' lines are inexplicably broadcast, like the voice of God.

That's not all. Beginning the production with Hermia's rehearsal dinner is a rather lovely device. But once she descends into the nightmare world of the fairies, the goings-on at home are forgotten and the audience is cheated out of seeing what happens after Hermia awakes.

Because of this, Calarco moves the mechanicals' play-within-a-play to the middle of the evening, instead of the very end, where Shakespeare intended it to serve as the entertainment after the multiple weddings. The play-within-a-play is now presented as a dress rehearsal and, as performed by some of the Shakespeare Theatre's finest veteran actors, it is as delightful as ever, with King's Bottom humorously distinguishing himself as doomed Pyramus, forced to strangle himself to death after accidentally losing his sword.

Speaking of Bottom, his fling with Titania -- after Puck turns Bottom's head into that of an ass -- is usually one of the major threads of the play. In this interpretation, however, it is overshadowed by the adventures of Hermia and her buddies. Calarco attempts to beef up those adventures in a number of ways. As the lovers change allegiances, the director includes lots of physical sparring (much of it with the actors in their underwear, which makes the show resemble a Calvin Klein ad). He also demotes Hermia's beloved Lysander to the lower-class occupation of gardener, introducing a social-class theme that is distracting since it is never developed.

In the end, despite some valiant efforts -- Anna Cody is especially game as tall, taunted Helena -- the exploits of the four young people never attain enough gravity to carry the weight of a play that generally fares just fine with competing plots.

For that matter, if Calarco is trying for a tighter focus, he could start by cutting back on the fairies' orgy after intermission, one of several scenes that smack of self-indulgence. "Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show," Bottom says in the last act of Shakespeare's play (and the middle of Calarco's). At the Shakespeare Theatre, too many elements that inspire wonder turn out more perplexing than wonderful.

`A Midsummer Night's Dream'

Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St., N.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. most Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. most Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays, Dec. 22 and 31; noon Nov. 23, Dec. 8, 15, 16, 21. Through Jan. 2

Tickets: $14-$58

Call: 202-547-1122

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