A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes place in a world where the Hollywood sign has been replaced by “A-T-H-E-N-S” and Shakespeare’s most famous lines are rejiggered into jokes. It’s a tale told not by an idiot but by first-time writer-director Casey Wilder Mott, who delivers a version of the Bard’s comedy that’s surprisingly sexy and, above all, silly. Unless you are finely attuned to the language, it’s sometimes uncommon for Shakespeare’s lighter plays to elicit many LOLs when performed, but Mott and his cast mine the material for every punchline, even wresting laughs via cleverly delivered turns of phrase.
The plot is a tangle of story lines. Hermia (Rachael Leigh Cook), an actress, and Lysander (Hamish Linklater), a photographer, are in love, but that’s complicated by businessman Demetrius (Finn Wittrock), who loves Hermia and is preferred by Hermia’s father (Alan Blumenfeld). Demetrius used to love poet Helena (Lily Rabe), who’s still obsessed with him. Yet Hermia and Helena are BFFs. When the former tells the latter that she’s running away with Lysander, Helena tells Demetrius in hopes that he’ll see the error of his affection. Instead, he follows the couple into the forest, and so goes Helena.
Meanwhile, the King and Queen of the Fairies, Oberon (Saul Williams) and Titania (Mia Doi Todd), are estranged. He feels sorry for Helena and instructs his servant, Puck (Avan Jogia), to swipe dust on Demetrius’ eyes while he’s sleeping that will make him fall in love with the first thing he sees when he wakes up. Oberon also uses the dust on Titania. In another subplot, a group of actors are rehearsing a play they will perform for film producer Theseus (Ted Levine) at his wedding. Among them is Bottom (Fran Kranz), whom Puck decides to turn into a walking ass.
(Mott tweaks this—Bottom’s head doesn’t become that of a donkey’s but a reflection of his t-shirt, which reads “Buttman.”)
Let’s just say complications ensue, and in the end, the players believe it may have all been a dream.
Though no one stands out in the ensemble, everyone does a fantastic job of wrapping their mouths around Shakespeare’s dialogue and giving it a present-day spin. (For example, Kranz does a casual-cool “How now?” with a “Hey there!” finger point.) As always with the Bard’s work, it’s helpful if you’re familiar with the plot going in—for the most part, these lines aren’t spoken slowly, and it’s not always clear who’s being enchanted and why. But Mott makes the play as accessible as possible, integrating technology such as texting and video-editing software to amusingly help tell the story.
L.A. is nearly a character itself. Echo Park Lake and its coffee shop figure prominently, while Puck surfs the beaches and Theseus lives in a grand Spanish-style estate. There’s also animation and several nods to Star Wars. It may sound like a bit of a mess, and Mott certainly does present a film that feels care-free, but it’s just like a dream.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.