J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

It is by far Shakespeare’s most genre friendly play, chocked full of fairies and magical spells. It is the comedy that inspired Czech animator Jiri Trnka’s adaptation 1959. Subsequently, both Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett have riffed on in their signature fantasy worlds, so it should be the Shakespeare play contemporary movie goers can most easily relate to. Now they have no excuse, because Julie Taymor will give them the spectacle they crave in her filmed version of her own dynamic staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (trailer here), which screens nationwide this coming Monday for one night only.

To inaugurate the opening of their first permanent home, Theatre for a New Audience turned to Taymor, who put her distinctive stylistic stamp on Midsummer, in collaboration with composer Elliot Goldenthal. Not only was the production a hit, it also translates well to the big screen (and the bigger the better). Yet, the best surprise is how deftly Taymor and her cast turn the play’s comedic business, getting big laughs everywhere Shakespeare intended them. Many previous productions have been fatally caught up in the dream motifs, resulting in a snoozy atmosphere. In contrast, Taymor’s Midsummer is unusually energetic and pacey.

Of course, it is still Midsummer. That means Hermia and Lysander are still forbidden to marry, they once again abscond to the forest outside Athens, inadvertently blundering into the Fairy Realm. The prospective suitors they rejected, Demetrius and Helena follow after them. Hoping to even out the situation, Oberon the King of the Fairies, orders Robin “Puck” Goodfellow to bewitch Demetrius with Helena, but his trickster servant casts the spell upon the wrong mortal. Meanwhile, a group of roughhewn tradesmen are rehearsing the play they hope to put on as part of the ruling Duke’s impending wedding. This time Puck gets it right, magically morphing the blowhard Nick Bottom into a Donkey-headed beast and enchanting Oberon’s disobedient Queen Titania with the braying prole.

Into this familiar, archetype-rich narrative, Taymor incorporates some incredible wire-work (at least she got something out of the Spiderman experience), the rich yet suggestive costuming (often reminiscent of her Lion King), her trademark billowing fabrics, sparingly effective use of video projections, and pillow fights. Believe it or not, almost all of it looks great on the screen.

However, the incontestable star of Taymor’s Taymor’s Shakespeare’s Midsummer is Kathryn Hunter, playing Puck in the Mary Martin tradition, but with a mischievous glean in her eye worthy of Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister. Taymor whips her around the stage like Spidey, yet she still totally nails the “if we shadows have offended” epilogue.

There are no weak links per se, but David Harewood’s physical presence as Oberon is pretty darned awesome. Likewise, Roger Clark plays the Duke with gravitas and good humor befitting a nobleman. To an extent, as Demetrius and Helena, Zach Appelman and Mandi Masden somewhat outshine a comparably blander Hermia and Lysander, but it hardly matters.

Filmed theater often looks a little flat, but Taymor makes it an immersive and kinetic cinematic experience. This will be a tough Midsummer to top, so it is great to have it so well preserved. Frankly, it easily ranks within the top tier of Shakespearean comedies for the big screen, up there with Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night and Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. Very highly recommended, Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream screens this Monday (6/22) as a special Fathom Events presentation at theaters nationwide, including the AMC Empire in New York.

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