Light and darkness are the warp and weft of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so it’s hardly surprising that Puck’s parting apologia for the play’s “shadows” should send a director looking for patterns. Discovering them is one thing; translating them into stage pictures as thematically coherent as they are visually compelling, thoughthat’s a taller order. And if Mark Lamos’ darkly beautiful production for the Shakespeare Theatre indisputably presents a series of wondrous images, it never brings them into dramatic focus.
That forest, for instance, the one in which the Athenian lovebirds and the “rude mechanicals” run afoul of the feuding fairy royals: Lamos and designer Leiko Fuseya imagine the arboreal summerscape as a barren, wintry expanse, all naked branches and empty distances washed in chill moonlight. Makes a certain sense, that; the fairy queen, after all, protests that the very seasons “change their wonted liveries” as she and her lord pursue their wrangles.
Certainly Fuseya’s spare glade makes a striking setting for the frolics of Lamos’ fairies, who seem to have wandered in from where the wild things are. Costumer Constance Hoffman looks to the sepia-toned environmentalist laments of photographer Robert ParkeHarrison for inspiration, finding there a coarse vocabulary of leather and metal, wood and wire; the minor fairies accessorize their ensembles with cogs, funnels, and other workshop castoffs, while Oberon and Titania, towering bat-winged figures wielding hobbyhorse staves, wear spindly crowns of what might be bronzeor, more intriguingly, willow withestipped with cold blue light.
The odd chair lists, forlorn and battered, against a tree; Titania’s bower turns out to be a levitating Victorian chaise girded about with bundled twigs. Enormous shadows dance in the stage’s farthest reaches, some projected, others cast by strategically lit actors. The show opens, in fact, with Titania’s changeling boyusually a mere unseen plot point, here a constant, silent presencemaking hand-shadow monsters in the darkened salon of Duke Theseus’ palace, which will develop ominous gaps at its very foundation as the action progresses. It’s all terribly atmospheric.
And it’s utterly opaque: Taken together, these disturbingly lovely pictures add up to…Who knows? A comment, maybe, about the depredations of industrialism on the natural world. But surely it’s the fairies who, for all their mischief, restore order to the Athenians’ affairs; indeed, they leave things better than they find them at the outset of the play, when the young lovers are at cross purposes and the duke and his Amazon intended seem mired in sexual politics. Dressing the elementals as junkyard dogs, surely, is mixing the metaphor.
Perhaps, then, everything we see is part of that mute boy’s shadow-show; Lamos establishes in the opening sequence that the changeling is somehow part of the Athenian world as well as the magical oneis he the son of either Theseus or Hippolyta, or a war orphan, or even a war prize?and something about the wordless agitation of young actor James E. Bonilla hints at emotional distress. Midsummer has much to say about the transformative power of imagination, after all, and it’s possible Lamos has conceived the entire business as a damaged child’s attempt at repairing a fractured domestic situation. The notion is never developed beyond that vague suggestion at the outset, thoughand when you step back from the idea, it’s debatable what import it would carry were it expanded further.
But then the Much Ado About Nothing Lamos directed last season had more style than substance, too. Midsummer fans will do better to leave off looking for a coherent concept and look for satisfaction in individual moments: the initial appearance of Lisa Tharps’ earthy, dignified Titania and Mark H. Dold’s arrogantly beautiful Oberon; the Guffmaniacal overreaching of Edward Gero’s undereducated impresario, Peter Quince, and the comic apoplexy of his Egeus, who might have been sketched by a mirthful Magritte; Bottom’s first entrance with that ass’s head (and the laugh David Sabin gets with a silent, sidelong look at the audience, never mind that his features are utterly obscured); the snowballing slapstick of the woodland chase that ends with a dripping quartet of Athenian youth, as you know it must from the instant you see the downstage pool. (Kate Nowlin and Paris Remillard make madcap hay as Helena and Lysander, with Noel True’s amusingly squeaky Hermia and Paul Whitthorne’s priggish Demetrius not far behind.)
There’s much to appreciate, too, in the splendid silliness of the Pyramus and Thisbe sequence, and in the very real ache that blooms in its last seconds (one of the play’s trickiest and loveliest transitions, handled splendidly here by Greg Felden). Daniel Breaker makes a goofier, more lighthearted Puck than the usual. And there’s an instant of unexpected joy when the newly wedded nobles present themselves to the Athenian court; credit composer and sound designer Martin Desjardins, who scores the moment with a celebratory something that sounds as if it might be Handel. (Turns out it’s Georges Delerue.)
All in all, more than enough to warrant a trip to the Lansburgh. But if there’s more to this Midsummer than the sum of its oddly lovely parts, thenwell, as Bottom puts it, “the eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen” what it might be.
Of all the remarkable noises Yuri Lane makes in From Tel Aviv to Ramallah, the most striking is the most subdued: The accelerating thud, thud, thud, of a nervous border guard’s heartbeat.
That’s because by the time this young Israeli finds himself strapped into his combat gear, standing nose to nose with a crowd of impatient Palestinians at a locked-down frontier, Lane has made sure we’ve come to know the urban hipster behind the Uzi. This is DJ Amir, a motorcycle messenger who moonlights as a turntablist in Tel Aviv’s rave scene, and we’ve already spent most of what seems like an extraordinary 24 hours with him. The depressing reality Lane brings home in his intense hour onstage, of course, is that a day in which security alerts and suicide bombings shatter the routine of market trips and coffeehouse hangoutsa day in which a kid with an appetite for life can find himself trembling on the edge of killing or being killedis all too ordinary in this region.
Written with documentary clarity and directed with jittery, jump-cut flash by Rachel Havrelock, From Tel Aviv to Ramallah would be remarkable if Amir’s singular story were all it told. But as its title suggests, the show insists on looking at Palestinian-Israeli conflicts from each side, and on finding the human storiesthe ordinary ones and the angry oneson both. With a sideways step and a vocal gear-change, Lane becomes Khalid, the proprietor of a Ramallah cybercafe; he’s as entrepreneurial and ambitious as Amir, and before the day is done he’ll become as entangled as his counterpart among the intractabilities of life in the “lands twice promised,” as an elegant bit of program-note shorthand puts it.
Ultimately, of course, an hourlong theater piece can’t unknot the issues it considers, and it can’t be any more profound about the ironies and tragic complexities it points to than others have already been. But it can be a sharp, well-built example of its own form, as this world premiere decidedly is: From Tel Aviv to Ramallah wastes neither words nor images, and it never stops to linger over its warmths or wallow in its griefs.
Lane, the Beat-Box Journey-man of the show’s subtitle, turns out to be something of a virtuoso of the sputter, the squeak, the hum and the click. With the amplification of a Madonna-ish headset mike and the suggestive visuals of Sharif Ezzat’s expressive, kinetic projections, he creates his own sound design and musical score, conjuring a host of cultural touchstones with a well-placed word or a snippet of instantly identifiable noise: a distinctive ring tone, a falafel vendor’s pained cry, the sound-booth scrape of needle on wax, the thwack of shoe leather against soccer ball, the lazy-anxious bubble of a bong, the bursty chirp of a machine gun, the Doppler whine of a fighter jet, the rattle and hiss of a graffiti artist’s spray can. What’s the noise, you probably have never wondered, of a nightclub security guard rifling through your bag in search of explosives? Lane has wondered, and he’s memorized both the sound and its haunting emotional echo.
Of all the noises Lane creates, though, the most painfully ironicand perhaps the most lastingly hopefulare the paired sounds he makes in the show’s very last moments. “Shalom,” he says, and echoes the word instantly with its brother, its lover, its mutual tormenter and inescapable twin: “Salaam.” CP