Anyone who found themselves uninspired by their high school English classes might remember that there was a small spark of fun to look forward to, if they were lucky. Should your instructor assign you to read, or better yet, watch a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you could anticipate some magical entertainment. Julie Taymor staged her own version of the classic in 2014 and fortunately, it was captured on film because it is astonishing.
Of course, the play was meant to be a spectacle and who better to adapt it to a modern stage than the women who brought The Lion King to Broadway. No spoilers, but Taymor finds a way to work her trademark anthropomorphic creatures into Midsummer as well, and it is as darkly charming as you would expect. However, the blue-collar players of Athens who mount their own performance in honor of their Duke Theseus’ pending nuptials are not as skilled in costume design as Taymor. Few are, and the Lion in their little troupe is a deliciously ridiculous self-reference of a play within a play about another play.
The four actors who play the somewhat bewitched and bewildered lovers are pitch perfect in their longings and frustrations for and about each other. Hermia (Lilly Englert) loves Lysander (Jake Horowitz) but is betrothed to Demetrius (Zach Appelman) who is the obsession of Helena (Mandi Masden). Even in Shakespeare’s time these two couples were probably a tad grating in their teenage angst. After all they are examples of what fools mortals can be, but they are played with a light touch that never loses the frothiness of the comedy of errors they are wrapped up in.
The star of the show is little Puck, or Robin Goodfellow as he is sometimes known. If you haven’t seen Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, consider watching it first and then come back for more with this version of Midsummer. The brilliant common denominator of both films is Kathryn Hunter. In Macbeth, she played the horrific Witches to widespread acclaim, but if anything, she is even better here as an impish sprite. Androgynous in suspenders and bowler hat, Hunter’s Puck is strangely reminiscent of Windsor McCay’s Flip the Clown from his famous Little Nemo comics. Her use of her skills in mime and contortion give her little sprite an otherworldliness so that when she does finally take flight, it is utterly believable even if the viewer can see the wires she wears. As is said of another character in the play, “though she be little, she be fierce.”
Some of the best scenes are between Puck and her master, Oberon (David Harewood). The two have a chemistry as they plot against the Fairy Queen, Titania (Tina Benko). As Bottom, Max Casella nails his donkey brays and is sincerely goofy without going too far into slapstick. As the Queen, Benko is glowing, literally and figuratively. Taymor’s inventiveness in depicting the flora of Titania’s forest is jaw-droppingly ingenious. This is a Midsummer that even stubborn haters of the Bard would find themselves giggling at and be sorry to see end. Puck does indeed keep his word to make amends for our time spent in this magical world with an unforgettable version of a classic.