‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ Review: Cinematic Stagecraft

'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

Movie Rating:

3.5

Generally speaking, I don’t cover the Front Row Theatre cinematic screenings. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a wonderful program that brings some of the finest theatrical events on Broadway and the West End to towns that could never possibly experience them otherwise. However, most of them ultimately feel like filmed plays and don’t offer much in the way of a cinematic experience. Thankfully, Julie Taymor’s production of ‘A Midsumer Night’s Dream’ is a little different.

Taymor has always been a master of stunningly visual stage spectacle. Mixing her unique imagination with William Shakespeare’s grand romantic fantasy/folly is such an obvious pairing that it’s shocking it never happened before now. While I’m certain that the show would have been extraordinary to see live, the filmed version is nothing short of magical and well worth seeking out for those who enjoy such things.

Though Taymor established her reputation as one of the most striking theatrical directors of her generation long ago, the unfortunate Broadway debacle known as ‘Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’ knocked a pretty hefty chip out of her shoulder that she clearly wanted to make up for with this production. From the opening image, Taymor lets loose her imagination and goes for broke. Puck wanders onto the stage and lies on a bed which rises to the ceiling surrounded by sheets with tree trunks seemingly growing beneath. A man then comes out and cuts the trunks with a chainsaw. The trees lower onto the stage, the sheets rise to the ceiling, turn blue, and form a night’s sky through careful lighting as we see the title projected across the stars in hypnotic colors. Instantly, Taymor transports the audience to a magical realm. Even though the stage and audience are plainly visible on screen, it’s impossible not to get swept up into another world.

Taymor’s technical delights only continue from there. Costumes seem to grow out of actors’ bodies. Children with painted faces creepily scurry around the stage as creatures of the forest. Actors fly in and out of scenes at will with a dancer’s precision. The bare stage seems to grow and transform with each passing scene, and just when you think the director has delivered an image that couldn’t possibly be topped, something fresh appears to tickle the imagination.

Taymor transforms a show that’s been performed thousands of times into something completely fresh. It’s familiar yet unlike anything else, and the carefully placed cameras set up by the director and her cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (‘Frida’, ‘Argo’, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’) always seem to be in the right places. For the most part, the camera is held back for a careful composition of the entire stage, but Prieto and Taymor are never afraid to dive in for a close-up, even filming a few of the quieter scenes through intimate handheld cameras.

Though the spectacle-driven production is very much a director’s play, Taymor chose her cast wisely. The relatively unknown youngsters playing the lovers all charm, tease and joke their way through their goofy roles. The cast and crew of the play-within-the-play are amusingly recast as New York stage hands with the accents and attitudes that implies (though the stereotypically gay treatment of the costume designer feels more than a little off). Max Casella dives into his role as the resident jackass with comedic ease, and the way in which he clearly operates his own donkey head puppet in the second half of the performance is undeniably impressive.

The standout performance is contortionist Kathryn Hunter as the mischievous Puck. Slapped with creepy mime makeup and 1930s attire, she dances around the stage like a mysterious nymph and performs remarkable physical feats in the midst of her dialogue in such oddball and endearing ways that she almost feels like part of the surreal stagecraft in the best possible sense.

Taymor doesn’t exactly take many liberties with the text itself. She spins out the old yarn with reverence and respect. Those looking for any sort of radical reinterpretation of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ will find nothing particularly new here from a dramatic standpoint. However, to quibble much about that is almost missing the point. Taymor’s goal was to take something familiar and filter it through her extraordinary visual imagination until it transformed into something new. The play looks unlike anything that anyone other than this director has done before. It’s enough to transport audiences right out of the theater and into the floating logic of dreams.

It’s such a visual feast that the power of the production is in no way lost on a movie screen. At times, the cinematic presentation even heightens the experience, allowing Taymor to focus her audience’s eyes onto small details or movements that could easily have been lost in person. This edition of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is absolutely worth seeking out on a big screen. The production might never have been intended to be a film during its initial conception, but it’s still easily the finest cinematic version of Shakespeare’s most flighty and magical play ever made.

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