For a director, William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is always threatening to become "A Midsummer Night's Nightmare." The wide-ranging play, currently at Geva Theatre Center, dives headlong into comedy at the same time that it sidles more subtly toward tragedy. The challenge is to give full expression to its contradictory nature yet come away with its ambiguity intact. Too dark and you betray its flamboyant spirit; too celebratory and you trivialize its shadowy dangers.
"Dream" consists of four interwoven stories, starting with the wedding of Duke Theseus and his defeated foe, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Beyond that, two young couples find themselves the victims of the Duke's firm justice and the fairy Puck's mischief. At the same time the king and queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania, quarrel bitterly until Oberon seeks revenge. Finally, a motley crew of workingmen — called The Mechanicals — are preparing a version of "Pyramus and Thisbe" to entertain the royal couple. The potential tragedies reside in the love stories: a royal couple who may wed despite their animosity; four young people caught in the forest at night, who may never find the love they seek; and fairy rulers who may never learn to forgive.
Typical of Shakespeare's comedies, "Dream" exposes a vulnerable world of waking, sunlight, and reason to the disorder we can't resist — an enveloping world of nightmare, magic, and comic madness. Shakespeare understood the id nearly 400 years before Freud gave us a word for it.
Each plot line intrudes on the others because characters in one story parallel characters in another, and because Oberon's servant, Puck, uses his magic potion indiscriminately. Usually an otherworldly mix of sympathy, skepticism, and mischief, Puck (George Abud) is the one who moves most easily between the worlds. But the directors have made him downright Dionysian, with little concern for the humans he observes.
Co-directors Mark Cuddy and Skip Greer, and the cast of two dozen, have chosen to unleash the play's wilder elements. What the text refers to at one point as a "frolic" soon becomes a frenzy of burlesque-like slapstick that eventually infuses nearly everything with manic momentum. The production, ravishingly costumed by Pamela Scofield and dreamily lit by Ann G. Wrightson, is a non-stop version that comes the closest I've seen to unapologetic farce. After the intermission — especially after the production's slow, unfunny start — the cast finds its footing to turn Shakespeare's wise poetic eye and sharp prosaic elbows into a wildly funny confabulation.
Is there anything wrong with that? How about the fact that it's a confabulation? Despite the directors' skillful use of the play's sexuality, from the flirtatious to the ridiculous to the lovingly erotic, an hour after the nosh they served up, I was hungry for some substance. Cuddy and Greer's gaudy cotton candy wasn't filling enough, not when the play is one of the supreme comedies in the English language.
The production was so fast, so entertainingly loony, and so filled with comic bits (too many of which were tired anachronisms) that the language and sometimes the characters got lost in the shtick. The play's poignancy rarely surfaced. "Dream" needs to tickle us and move us, but Cuddy and Greer settled for the giggles. Theseus' (Keith Hamilton Cobb) imposition of marriage on Hippolyta (Carly Street) appears as mere fact, without emotion. Does she resent his authority? Does he impose his will because he has the power? Or does affection grow between them despite their recent war? We never know.
Cobb and Street also portray Oberon and Titania. It's a solid decision that would have made a lot more sense if Theseus and Hippolyta had served some purpose. The directors downgrade them by replacing their opening scene with the introduction of The Mechanicals. They seem to be saying that this is a production in which everything is for fun. In the process, they deprive the rulers of their implicit roles in the dreams and nightmares to follow.
As for what might have been — Jo Winiarski's exquisite woodland set, populated by weightless fairies in gossamer and lace, brings Oberon and Titania's realm to life before we ever see them. Yet when the two fairy regents restore their love — after her dalliance with Bottom, who has been turned into an ass — Movement Coordinator Darren Stevenson gives them some choreography to suggest something ethereal, although it feels mainly artsy-fartsy.
The Mechanicals' supremely silly version of "Pyramus" ends with the eponymous hero (Brian O'Connor as Nick Bottom the weaver) lying dead from a hilarious excess of stabbings. But when his beloved Thisbe (Ron Menzel as Francis Flute the bellows-mender) discovers him, the tone becomes instantly tender and loving. It's the play's most moving moment, ironically the closest this romp of a production comes to recognizing tragedy.
Near the end, Puck, the sardonic outsider and observer ("What fools these mortals be"), dances with the fairies and actually kisses one of them. After an evening of revelry he's largely responsible for, why would the directors want their Puck — in his satyr-like garb — to turn suddenly sentimental? It may have been a feel-good moment for an audience, but it doesn't fit the directors' view of the character.
Puck's epilogue ends the play with the traditional call for applause: "Give me your hands, if we be friends." Not because we're friends, but if. Shakespeare's "Dream" sustains its shadowy fragility and uncommon wit to the end even though we don't get to see all of it. Cuddy and Greer staged the play with great skill and vigor, but they kept finding answers even where Shakespeare gave us mainly questions and conjectures.