Shadows and light are key components of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre. Yet visually intriguing as director Mark Lamos' interpretation often is, it doesn't shed much new or different light on Shakespeare's comic look at love - mortal and immortal.
The emphasis on light and shadows begins in the opening moments. Lamos starts with a silent added scene - a young boy enters dressed in pajamas and carrying a lamp, which he uses to make shadow puppets on the back wall. Later, when the fairies appear, they sport little illuminated light bulbs in their headgear, and at times they carry work lights, dragging heavy industrial cords behind them. (The inventive lighting design, which is nearly a character in its own right, is by Robert Wierzel.)
The treatment of the fairies is the production's most unusual design choice. Inspired by the bleak, cautionary art of a photographer named Robert ParkeHarrison, Lamos and costume designer Constance Hoffman dress the fairies in ragged, brackish gray clothing and black work boots - a major departure from the Victorian fairies Hoffman clothed in gossamer pastels for Center Stage's 1997 production.
With insectlike wings and headgear that sprouts such found-object trim as metal funnels and wheels, the fairies are ghoulish, apocalyptic-looking creatures. Hunkering around Titania, the fairy queen, or flying about the stage (as they do from time to time), they are reminiscent of the Wicked Witch's winged monkeys in The Wizard of Oz.
As to Titania, when she and Oberon, the fairy king, show up, they are each more than 10 feet tall. With their torsos rising above shimmering, voluminous skirts, these are awe-inspiring, even fearsome fairy monarchs.
But imaginative as some of these design choices may be, they never coalesce into a satisfying whole. The band of humble tradesmen, for example, wear bright colors, with Bottom, the weaver, in 1970s-style garb, while the play's third group of characters, the Athenian nobility, dress in a melange of modern styles.
Lamos' staging is also oddly varied, although there's a little too much focus on sheer silliness. When the four young, scantily clad lovers break into a brawl, they plunge into a recessed pool of water, and the scene ends up looking like a wet T-shirt contest.
Even the seemingly foolproof play-within-a-play - that "most lamentable comedy" mounted by the tradesmen - goes somewhat awry. Lamos obscures much of the humor by relying on a running slapstick gag in which the actor portraying Moonshine repeatedly swings his lantern so wildly, he nearly beans his fellows actors.
Most of the performances are less inspired than the production's luminous imagery (the artfully minimalist set, which serves mostly as a backdrop for the costumes and lighting, is by Leiko Fuseya).
David Sabin, however, distinguishes himself as Bottom, imbuing the character with all the heart and bravado of Ralph Kramden and with just as high an opinion of himself.
Also noteworthy are Noel True, who makes an adorably feisty Hermia; Edward Gero in the dual roles of Hermia's blustering father and Peter Quince, the blue-collar director of the play-within-the-play; Daniel Breaker as a rather rough-hewn Puck; and young James E. Bonilla as the Changeling Boy, whose unspoken role Lamos expands considerably in his closest attempt at a unifying element.
As is frequently done, the actors who play the fairy king and queen double as Theseus, Duke of Athens, and his bride, Hippolyta. It's indicative of the imbalance in this production, however, that neither actor is equally effective in both parts. Lisa Tharps' Titania is stronger than her Hippolyta, while Mark H. Dold's cuts a more commanding figure as Theseus than Oberon.
Although Lamos includes a lovely bit of near-recognition between Hippolyta and Bottom in the end, overall the play's various realms remain disconnected. And, despite the inclusion of many captivating features - indeed, despite the use of flying itself - the production is never fully airborne.
What: "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. N.W., Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, noon selected Wednesdays. Through Jan. 4