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Sigmund Freud, as an obsessive interpreter of reveries and nightmares, would doubtless have had plenty to say about Joe Calarco’s happily sex-crazed A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Yes, I know the play is generally attributed to Shakespeare, but the director pretty much owns it this time.) The production fairly begs to be analyzed. It has a surrealist, Felliniesque aesthetic seemingly inspired by everything from Satyricon to Alice in Wonderland to Baywatch, and a psychosexual palette broad enough to include not just virginal lovers but also a father figure who, when glimpsed showering in the nude, inspires all sorts of erotic couplings. It’s also poetic and entertaining in surprisingly uncomplicated ways, content to find beauty in a swirl of silk, and comedy in a goofy grin.
Calarco’s staging takes enormous liberties with a script few directors have previously considered in need of much tweaking. He rearranges scenes, excises characters, and inserts bacchanalian revels with frottage for lovers of all persuasions, essentially reinventing the Bard’s enchanted woodland as a sprite-infested forest of the mind. Audiences willing to follow him through this psychoscape will find a shimmering fantasy world populated by heroes whose rippling abs and taut glutes suggest they’ve just stepped down from Calvin Klein underwear billboards, and by heroines who romp gauze-clad through onstage pools like latter-day Virna Lisis living La Dolce Vita.
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Though this mouth-wateringly attractive cast ends up spending much of the evening in varying stages of undress, the production begins on a chilly note—not with warm words from the Duke of Athens (who has been reduced here to an offstage voice), but with the sounds of a musician plucking “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” on his violin. He’s entertaining at a rehearsal dinner for the wedding of Hermia (Tricia Paoluccio), a plucky young socialite, and Demetrius (Erik Sorensen), the aristocratic Ken doll her father wants her to wed. Lurking in the shadows is Lysander (Gregory Wooddell), the hunky family gardener Hermia would much prefer as a husband. Also on hand is Hermia’s maid of honor, Helena (Anna Cody), who can’t tear her eyes from the groom-to-be.
When Hermia swoons after getting laced too tightly into her wedding corset, the rest of the play becomes a dream that expresses the panic she’s feeling. First she fantasizes that her father (Andrew Long) demands her death for defying him, a Shakespearean punishment that would otherwise seem a tad severe in modern dress. Then the family’s butler (Blair Singer) enters her room barefoot and, as the gray walls fly away, becomes a fleet-footed Puck. He leads her into a skewed, baroque landscape centered on an oversized chandelier that appears to have fallen into a snowdrift. Chairs moored high in the air are soon filled by fairies who descend from the heavens in a choreographed frenzy, and young Hermia—who has been so constricted in her waking life—is freed to wander through an erotically charged world replete with magic potions, lovers who can’t be counted on, and powerful parental figures—fairy king and queen Oberon and Titania—who fight over children.
It’s a nifty concept, and one that tightens the play without robbing it of either poetry or comedy. Calarco’s adaptation simply cuts the plot line in which the Duke and his Amazon Queen prepare for their wedding, an elision that creates a couple of structural problems. But the director solves them by moving Pyramus and Thisbe, the uproarious play-within-a-play the “rude mechanicals” offer the royal couple as a wedding gift, from the end of the evening to its center. This transposition allows the director to conclude the evening on a note that’s more wistful than raucous.
Though these textual changes are fairly substantial, they don’t really alter the way the play operates once the four lovers are being mismatched by Oberon’s magic potions. Actually, having the same actors (Long and Valerie Leonard) double as Hermia’s parents in real life and as Oberon and Titania in her subconscious is clearer than the usual practice of having them double as both human and supernatural royalty. Psychologically, it makes sense that Hermia would dream up a father substitute to screw up her love life, and also imagine him ordering around a butler/Puck. Elsewhere, the conceit doesn’t have quite so salutary an effect, but it’s never less than persuasive.
No one is going to accuse the romantic leads of underacting but—with perfect hair, a matched set of unnaturally high cheekbones, and perhaps a collective three ounces of body fat between them—they’re certainly easy on the eyes. Let it also be said that when they overdo, it’s with what you might call a summering-in-the-Hamptons flair. Wooddell makes the corn-fed Lysander an affably endearing goof, pretty much a walking, talking libido, whether he’s chasing Hermia while clothed or Helena while in his skivvies. Sorensen’s preening, prissy Demetrius is no less funny when he stops being a tightass and starts sipping from his girlfriend’s high-heeled pump. Cody finds enough amusing variations on a one-shoe stagger to get laughs with Helena’s every attempt at assertive foot stamping. And Paoluccio’s spunky Hermia capably shoulders the extra dramatic weight this production heaps on her.
They’re backed by a deliriously enthusiastic set of would-be thespians for the Pyramus and Thisbe nonsense of the fifth act (which Calarco has here transformed into a giddy rehearsal in Act III). Floyd King’s portrayal of a spotlight-hogging, blithely oblivious Bottom is especially priceless, and once he’s been given the head of a donkey by Oberon’s magic, he also manages to be oddly moving. His confreres are appropriately insane, and if the fairies seem more athletic than ethereal as they scale columns and leap fjords that later turn into beaches, they’re certainly an attractive bunch.
It doesn’t hurt a bit that Helen Q. Huang drapes them in less and less icy aqua fabric as the evening progresses, or that Daniel MacLean Wagner’s seductive, ever-shifting lighting slowly heats up the fabulously suggestive mindscape Michael Fagin has fabricated from plaster and crystal folderol, each piece of which somehow suggests wedding cake. The overall effect of the evening is perhaps best summed up by a line that Calarco’s scene shuffling has placed at the very end of the evening: “I have had,” says Bottom upon being restored to human form, “a most rare vision.” There’s not an audience member who doesn’t know just what he means. CP