A Shakespearean ‘Dream’ Come True

Courtesy South Coast Repertory

Opening on Jan. 20 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” comes to Orange County with thrilling visuals and trendy art direction that aim to please.

As often is the case with “Midsummer,” director Mark Rucker opted for a non-traditional staging of the play, loosely setting the action in the 1920s. The woodland fairy scenes, by contrast, occur in a surreal fairyland setting, with elements of punk, nightclub and circus aesthetics. Reviewers have compared the fairy scenes to rave culture.

College audience members should be warned: this may not be the Shakespeare you remember from class. The fantastical themes of “Midsummer” lend themselves well to creative adaptations with drugs, fairies, teenage love and angst, and Mark Rucker’s effort is no exception.

The stage design marks what is perhaps the most striking artistic choice in “Midsummer,” with soft lighting and organic sets that channel the décor of The Lab or The Camp. The main set features a large circular cutout with dangling light bulbs behind it while the fairies perch on multi-level shelves that glow like fireflies, and a “Wizard of Oz”-like road winds out to the audience. While the main set in fairyland is organic, earthy and trendy, the sets in civilization are stark and somewhat posh.
The opening set evokes Lady Gaga with white bath-haus-like décor, with Theseus and Hippolita posing on a bright white sofa for flashing cameras announcing their engagement. From then on, the “reality” scenes adopt vaguely 1920s-themed costumes, while the fairyland in the woods a more anachronistic costuming.  Later in the closing wedding scene, the art returns to a fun, fresh and modern tone with lanterns made from light bulbs strung under white umbrellas.

Normally somewhat interchangeable in their partner-swapping and identity crises, the four teenage lovers are played with costuming and development to differentiate. Lysander is dressed with chunky glasses and is a bit of a square, Helena as a nerdy girl, Demetrius as strong and macho and Hermia as the cute blonde popular girl similar to Kristin Chenoweth’s Galinda. The group dynamic is lively and fun, their love triangles comically confused and reconfigured.

The Rude Mechanicals are played by a band of blue-collar workers who roll in on a lit-up truck, led by Bottom (Patrick Kerr). Bottom’s line-delivery is the comical highlight of the play, and Kerr captures the character in a construction man worker with panache and finesse. Any actor who undertakes the role of Bottom can have his work cut out for him, with a terribly funny, but occasionally long and repetitive role. Kerr proves a master, avoiding the grating bombastic in favor of the smooth and understated in a way that is tremendously funny.

The most unusual character interpretation is no doubt Puck, the messenger and assistant to the fairy King Oberon. Puck acts as middleman between the humans and the fairies, and his monologues function as an introduction to fairyland for the audience. Often played as the most vibrant and frenzied of the fairies, Puck (Rob Campbell) in this rendition is relatively aloof and understated, and provides a balancing influence with the rest of the troupe. Campbell channels some major Anthony Kiedis, dripping with too-coolness in a fedora and rock star swagger. While Puck is highly entertaining, regrettably some of the most profound lines of the play are lost in his drawled delivery, muddying the thematic implications of imagination and reality in the fairyland.

The play is a visual treat to the eye, but edits some scenes to simplify the themes. The sexually ambiguous scene with Hermia and Helena is cut, and little tension is created by the fact that Demetrius, unlike all other characters, remains under the fairy spell at the end of the play. To be fair, “Midsummer” is by genre a comedy, and is rightly staged as such. Also, with edits the play already runs two hours and 40 minutes, and probably couldn’t stand to be much longer. There are, however, nuances in the text that could be better developed to make for a richer theater experience.

While not entirely faithful to the original play, “Midsummer” proves a treat that is a fun and whimsical rendition of the Shakespearean classic. “Midsummer” runs through Feb. 20, with student tickets as low as $20.