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Flight of fancy
Martha Clarke’s dark Dream
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By William Shakespeare. Directed by Martha Clarke. Set and costumes by Robert Israel. Lighting by James Ingalls. Original music by Richard Peaslee. Sound by David Remedios. Flying by Foy. With John Campion, Karen MacDonald, Will LeBow, Michi Barall, Tug Coker, Daniel Talbott, Katharine Powell, Thomas Derrah, Remo Airaldi, Will Peebles, Jeremy Geidt, Jonathan Broke, Jesse J. Perez, Erica Berg, Lisa Giobbi, Olivia Grant, Paola Styron, and Snow Guilfoyle. Presented by the American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center through February 28.

The American Repertory Theatre began its tenure here with Alvin Epstein’s regal production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which contrasted the erotic world directed by the fairies with the formal music penned by Henry Purcell in 1692 for The Faery Queen. The noted choreographer/director Martha Clarke also has a dream of Dream, one in which there is more night than summer. In her stark Athenian wood, the fevered, Goya-driven notions of the Polish critic Jan Kott in his essay "Titania and the Ass’s Head" meet the aerial choreography of Clarke’s own The Garden of Earthly Delights and the Freudian foment of her Vienna: Lusthaus, from the 1980s. In Clarke’s vision, we are dreaming primarily in black and white, of a kingdom of air and earth where sexuality takes shapes both delicate and carnal, embracing even its oft-heralded connection to the grave. Here sprites singing eerie songs by Marat/Sade composer Richard Peaslee somersault slowly through space to land in a field of ash, and Oberon, the ultimate voyeur, watches amused as Titania happily copulates with a snorting ass. Crickets sound, as do Chopin nocturnes, and daybreak seems a long time coming to this shadowy swamp of love’s confusion.

But, say, isn’t A Midsummer Night’s Dream supposed to be a comedy? A romp in which lovers and workmen escape the harsh strictures of Athens to chase their hormones through a balmy night in a forest enchanted by feuding, sexual-mischief-making fairies? A roundelay in which love gets misdirected and redirected, all with the aid of eyedrops from "a little western flower," only to turn out perfectly ordered at the end? Actually, one of the marvels of Shakespeare’s plays is the way in which they can be stretched across various frames, and this disturbing dream is no romp, despite the amusing ineptitude, complete with "piano improvisations" by Peter Quince, of the "tragical mirth" of Pyramus and Thisbe with which the rude mechanicals cap the Bard’s midnight journey through the transmogrifications of love.

But that’s the ending, shakily performed on a wooden table before curtains as uncontrollable as the play’s passions, with Robin Starveling’s moon dangling in air like a lanky, frantic bauble. In the beginning, duke of Athens Theseus, done up in the dour finery of an Ibsen play, wakes from a dream to start things not with Shakespeare’s opening but with act five’s rumination that "The lunatic, the lover, and the poet/Are of imagination all compact./One sees more devils than vast hell can hold:/That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,/Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt./The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,/Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,/And as imagination bodies forth/The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen/Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing/A local habitation and a name./Such tricks hath strong imagination/That, if it would but apprehend some joy,/It comprehends some bringer of that joy./Or in the night, imagining some fear,/How easy is a bush supposed a bear!"

Whereupon imagination bodies forth as, buoyed by a wire operated by ropes and pulleys stage left, a frothily white-clad dancer/fairy takes a ground-grazing leap across the stage clutching in her arms Titania’s changeling child. In Clarke’s production, the wood is spookily dim rather than beckoning, ruled by John Campion’s commanding, disheveled Oberon and Jesse J. Perez’s chaos-loving Robin Goodfellow, more "Hobgoblin" than "sweet Puck," jingling like a jester but resembling a diabolic Michael Jackson and putting "a girdle round about the earth" by tunneling underground. Titania’s dancer train is beauteous and graceful, but the fairy land dominated by Oberon is brute and sinister. Sometimes, as Shakespeare proves in A Winter’s Tale, a bear probably is a bear.

Robert Israel’s broad, sooty, Beckettesque landscape is a bit much; even Waiting for Godot has a tree! But with its board-bordered holes and dusty ground, it underlines the dangerous, subterranean nature of this Dream, in which nature seems not so much at war with itself, as Titania suggests in burnished verse, as burnt-out (though James Ingalls’s lighting adds ghostly shimmer). On the other hand, the pitfall-pocked terrain can be seen as an apt slate for the cruel, oft-arbitrary romantic pursuits of the characters to be writ on. In these environs, the flip-flop declarations and betrayals of the play’s quartet of lovers seem more mean than hilarious. And the only innocents are the sextet of homespuns led by Thomas Derrah’s vain Little Tramp of a Bottom and Will LeBow’s nervous, ivory-tickling Peter Quince. Moreover, in Clarke’s reading, Nature never wholly rights itself. At the end, after the wedding of the conquering Theseus to his captured Amazon is celebrated, a sullen Hippolyta exits alone, leaving Theseus, no longer the satisfied Oberon of his imagining, to follow resignedly.

If I have a caveat about Clarke’s extreme vision, it’s the wish that all of the acting were as magical as the choreography. This movement-oriented director is not the first to fly the fairies; Mark Lamos, for one, did it in his memorable 1988 production for Hartford Stage. But there is a comparison in the program of Clarke’s highly physical work to Anne Bogart’s, which made me think how deftly Bogart’s SITI company might inject a touch of I Love Lucy into the lovers’ confusion, as they did into the mix-and-match brave-new-world machinations of last season’s La Dispute. Here the quartet of Michi Barall, Tug Coker, Daniel Talbott, and Katharine Powell move well through Clarke’s ever-changing patterns, and the naturalness of their playing brings home their callousness: when in Shakespeare’s act three Lysander flings the scorned Hermia from him and she exclaims, "Why are you grown so rude?", the audience laughs because what it’s witnessing is closer to abuse than impoliteness. Still, like their Nehru-ish costumes, the foursome are somewhat bland, with Coker’s Paul Bunyan–esque Lysander and Talbott’s more compact Demetrius, both slapping and shoving and even throwing things, a little goofy.

But Erica Berg, Lisa Giobbi, and Paola Styron, the three dancers imported by Clarke to play Titania’s ¾thereal attendants, are given such an intriguing movement vocabulary — 360-degree spins, floating on their backs, wafting up from prone repose to weightless verticality — that they seem at once airy and superhuman. And sexual as well: when Perez’s tenderly lecherous Puck lands a long kiss on one of Titania’s retinue, the fairy hovers in apparent excitement, her bare feet churning in air. And there is authoritative, poetic work by Campion and Karen MacDonald as these fluttering forces of nature’s "parents and originals," Oberon and Titania. Both wrap golden tongues around the verse, and MacDonald contrasts her compliant, resentful Hippolyta with a deliciously sensual Titania who, though apparently sated by the hasty bestial exertions of Derrah’s Alf-headed Bottom, wakes to Oberon’s kiss with sleepy fervor and, despite a shudder at the long-eared ex-lover at her feet, no malice.

Not that Derrah’s Bottom, with or without his ass’s head, suggests the animal images of Goya’s Caprichos that are reported to have inspired the director. As a donkey in a too-short suit, he has the plodding gait and the modest air of a carthorse — though, returned to himself, he makes abundantly clear what "methought I had," and it is not big ears. As an overenthusiastic weaver/thespian, however, he’s a bit of a prima donna, flouncing from rehearsal when told he can only play one part, sitting on the piano keys to sound a blat of protest. And in the play within the play, his Pyramus — pounding the sound of horse’s hooves on his armor, groping for a lost Buster Brown wig — is a hilarious combination of pomp and panic. He meets his match in Remo Airaldi’s apple-gnawing, filmily full-skirted Thisbe — as personified by a volatile if gender-insecure Flute given to intense snits of frustration at his mispronunciations. Throw in Jeremy Geidt’s touchingly un-leonine Snug the Joiner and you have a crew of rustics who, though foolish, are the sweetest thing in a production bent on showing the vicious, rather than the valentine, face of desire.

Issue Date: January 23 - 29, 2004
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