The Bedlam production of A Midsummer Night's Dream which closes tomorrow at the recently relocated Pearl Theatre in New York city is not for everyone, although I commend it to Peter Brook.
'Brook's Dream', 1970, is known in theatre lore as the one that burst the bounds, re-imagined what's possible on a stage, and, even for those of too young to have seen it (that's me), opened the way for robust exploration of the Bard's works for generations to come.
The Empty Space published in 1968 was a preamble to this blast of fresh air, and in it the author offered four descriptions of theatrical experience: deadly, holy, rough and immediate. The Bedlam production transitions between each of these in an irreverent, energetic and inventive version.
Five actors (although at times it seems like a lot more) dressed in random basic with unexplained strips of fluorescent fabric attached, perform multiple roles and constant ensemble work inhabiting by turns trees, bushes, buzzing insects and faerie extras as well as the aristocracy of the court and the artisans of the workshop.
It takes a little time, but by the end of the evening one has entered the conceit almost in collusion with the actors, and the spectacular penultimate scene of the play within the play is a virtuoso demonstration from the director and and the actors that utterly charms.
I have seen a 6 handed Measure For Measure, a 6 handed Cymbeline, a 5 handed Cymbeline, a 6 handed Taming of the Shrew, I've been in a 6 handed Winter's Tale, and the 2 handed Tempest and the puppetry Macbeth were featured productions at The Mull Little Theatre where I began as a professional with my own solo Henry V (incidentally, to my mild surprise over the years I've heard of at least three other solo Henry V productions even though I thought I had cornered the market, but my friend Mark Carey with his Unto the Breach leads this particular field). When living in London I watched as much Shakespeare as a man could eat in full productions with what now seems radical conventionality with one actor playing one role. I've watched Shakespeare recitals and adaptations, updating and translations, As well as this I am a veteran of the Dream having played in different productions, rather than in the same one; Theseus, Peter Quince (twice), Robin Starveling, Moth and Cobweb.
What is deadly theatre? According to Brook, and I agree with him, from an audience point of view it's that familiar sensation of being mildly bored while classical text is delivered in measured tones and (often) recycled period costumes, with static staging, by stolid actors. Boring Shakespeare belongs in a special sub-catagory of Deadly Theatre, and should be prescribed by doctors everywhere for insomniacs.
But live or deadly, solo, boiled-down or full scale it's hard to destroy Shakespeare, whose work is to stage as scripture to religion, or market force to capitalism.
What is deadly about this production? Not much, although the opening flirts with death.
The play opens with some very broad character work as the ensemble gives us no less than three versions of the first few speeches with different actors variously playing Theseus, Hypolita, Egeus and Philostrate. My first thought was "Oh my God, are they going to do this ALL NIGHT? I'll miss my train." But this multi-option casting is simply a way to introduce us to the vocabulary of the production.
Again, at first, for perhaps the first 15 minutes, the acting seems over-energized, and the text over-illustrated, but this is a small entrance fee to the succeeding 3 hours of an exploration that tears the play apart, delivers weird insights, and delights (almost all) the audience.
The casting settles down and you can follow who is who (Oh yes, she's Hermia now, ah, he's Puck when he's not Bottom) watching, you become used to the turn on a penny changes between characters, you begin to wonder what-the-hell-they'll do next. There are physical clinches especially reminiscent of a class called "Group Movement" in my second year acting training at Central - broadly known simply as, 'Grope" - as the quartet of lovers enters their journey of confusions.
The world of Faerie is brilliantly evoked by the buzzing wings and live sound effects of busy insects, and Titania is a balletic Willow in constant graceful motion counterpointing the ferocious fury and erotic tension with which she delivers '... and never since the middle summer spring ...". And in fairyland, the ensemble gives us choreography worthy of Pilobolus or Martha Graham.
A welcome surprise is the care that has been taken with the text. Much of the "Dream" is in rhyming couplets and in casual hands insistent rhythms can be hopelessly dull. Here the cast has been encouraged to mint the words as new. It pays off. It's a pleasure to hear Bottom speak as an articulate reasonable man (although perhaps not the very sharpest knife in the drawer), another counterpoint to the sonic improbabilities this same actor offers as the shape-shifter Puck - while I'm on the subject I'll mention that gifted actor Jason O' Connell - he and I have shared the stage in both Little Rock and Beijing (it's a long story ref: here) - later in the show Mr. O' Connell gives us a spectacular Bottom playing Marlon playing Pyramus - that alone is worth the price of admission.
Okay then, once you've got the ground rules, the show gets Rough. Rough 'n' Ready complete with scatalogical jokes, groin gags and the fullest expression of the Titania/Bottom love encounter I've seen this side of censorship. And at times we touch the Holy - definition to make visible the invisible - the treatment of the flowers that Oberon commissions Puck to deploy, is an example.
But what emerges beyond the jinx and the japes are the connections between the three worlds of the play and between their characters. Oberon/Thisbe is double you don't often see, nor Helena/Hypolita not mention Quince/Theseus. Of Shakespeare's more popular plays, this one lends itself readily to the fairytale symbolism of the subconscious, and the gesture of this production with its actors compelled into strange shapes, speaks of the unseen forces that move life.
Gulping the rough, with a measure of the holy, and the merest pinch of deadly. The production is immediate.
I wish Peter Brook could have seen it.