If only all our jangling was esteemed so much sport.
Now, I’m not positive what the Shakespearean connotation of jangling is, but I’m going to take a stab based on Long Wharf Theatre’s current interpretation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
In Shakespeare’s world, jangling referred to the discord between the real and the fantastical, between the ephemeral and the lasting. In director Kim Rubinstein’s world, jangling refers to an Athens that’s equal parts Palm Springs and Oz, a premium on physical comedy, and a setting that channels Lisa Frank on crystal meth — in a good way.
Ultimately, all that jangling does a beautiful symphony beget, to reference an icon from an altogether different era. There’s a reason “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is the Shakespeare play that is performed most often. It has a little bit to do with being an aspiring set designer’s wet dream, and it has a lot more to do with jangling — with the lunatic, hypnotic, discordant machinations we mortals call love.
Helena (Cheyenne Casebrier) loves Demetrius (Markus Potter). Hermia (Mia Barron) loves Lysander (Jason Denuszek). Lysander loves Hermia. Demetrius, too, loves Hermia, and Hermia’s father (Stephen Anderson) loves Demetrius (in the paternal, allow-you-within-10-feet-of-my-daughter sort of way).
The path of true love really never did run smooth, and these lovers’ spats place them in the middle of fairy king Oberon’s (Tom Nelis) forest. A few cases of misidentification, a love potion or two and a revenge fantasy later, the love polygon has been dilated, rotated and skewed to produce heartache all around.
The lovelorn quadrangle, of course, is just a concession to structure, a skeletal framework on which to stucco the concoction of slapstick and the supernatural that are the heart of “Midsummer.”
The most memorable characters in this ostensibly romantic comedy are not in love at all, at least as far as we can tell, and there’s an underlying sentiment that if all’s fair in love, well, all’s pretty repetitive in love, too. Rubinstein seems to acknowledge this truism: Certain tropes, like the spurned lover dangling from the beloved’s neck and the echoing protestations of devotion that accompany every rush onstage are repeated to comic effect.
Rubinstein’s theatrical hall of mirrors is compounded by her penchant for casting actors in multiple roles. Each of the immortals plays a role in Athens as well — Oberon; Queen Titania (Christina Rouner), whom he enchants to fall in love with an ass; the ensemble sprites; and, of course, Puck (Brad Love), Oberon’s servant and the maestro of the entire comedy of errors.
I’m sure there is some deep-seated philosophical implication to the casting job, some commentary on the nature of boundary and context and people being more than they seem to be, but we’re having too much fun to think about it too hard.
The juxtaposition of the real and fantastical — denizens of both domains remain on stage during all the scenes — renders the forest breathtaking, and lighting effects on the pastel-sponged horizon take us through day and night and winter and summer as the inhabitants of the forest, whirling dervishes clad in leaves, sing their vibrato incantations.
These puppet masters — the non-mortals, whose meddling creates at least as many problems as it solves — are the focal point of this play. The puppet master theme may go a little far, as with a final sequence in which Puck stands in the center of the stage, dragging his marionettes hither and dither by invisible wires, but, in general, the constellations that light up with a flick of a fairy wrist; the moon that is whirled in and out by obedient sprites; and the strobe lights embedded in the Astroturf stage are eerie and mesmerizing, locating the forest a little closer to Gotham City than to Oz in terms of fantasy realms.
This version of “Midsummer” realizes that Shakespeare’s comedies were premised on appealing to comedic devices that are familiar and accessible. “Modernizing” Shakespeare for Long Wharf by giving it touches of contemporary humor isn’t really modernizing it so much as remaining faithful to the spirit of the play.
There are hoodies. There are high tops. There are polka dots, power ties and fishnets with holes that grow bigger as the night wears on. But more importantly, there are brilliant and side-splitting sequences that seem lifted entirely out of sitcoms. These mostly involve the “play within a play” storyline, which follows a group of amateur actors, a storyline tokenly linked to the main plotline by a Puck-induced metamorphosis of one of the actors.
The erstwhile players attempt to assemble a bench with an Ikea blueprint and Groucho Marx results. Snug (Raymond McAnally), who plays a lion, seductively roars and tries to learn his lines (one card, printed with the word “roar”); Nick Bottom (Bill Raymond) steals the show with the longest suicide scene in history; and Flute’s (Carman Lacivita) falsetto and Snout’s (Jojo Gonzalez) musical accompaniment have to be heard to be believed. They strut, they rehearse and they soliloquy until the audience is in stitches, and every scene with this comedic troupe is inspired.
(Not so inspired, incidentally, are the two occasions where Rubinstein reads a near-rape into the text of the ultimately frivolous comedy. It certainly drives home Helena’s point about women not being able to fight as men do, but bookended by hysterical chase sequences and double entendres as they are, polo-and-khaki-clad Demetrius’ date rapist impersonations are just bizarre.)
This version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” seems to toy with modern touches in a haphazard way. But comedy is premised on accessibility, and if what it takes to make this play fun is a trip to Urban Outfitters and a little bit of Louis Armstrong, more power to the cast and crew of Long Wharf’s phenomenal “Dream.”