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ATC offers bleak ‘Dream’

Love’s universality gets muddled

By Leigh E. Rich

David Ira Goldstein’s rendition of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” begets a modern parable out of this classic Shakespearean comedy. Arizona Theatre Company’s artistic director garnishes this play about imagination with a brash seasoning of the industrial world. Brilliantly interpreted, the performance leaves the audience in want for nothing. However, he never fully transports us from our mechanical, modern world—a purposeful rouse to deconstruct the fairy tale image of love.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” revolves around four groups of characters: the fairies, the rustics, the lovers and the royal court of Athens. A dispute between Hermia, one of the lovers, and her father over the paternalistic Athenian law (that a woman must marry whomever the father chooses or face death) forces Hermia to escape the city with her lover Lysander. They steal into the forest, followed by Demetrius and Helena, two other lovers, and a group of local workmen (the rustics) rehearsing their play for the duke and duchess of Athens. The lovers and the rustics become pawns of the disputing Oberon and Titania, rulers of the spiritual world. Comedic events in the forest allow the arguing lovers to reconcile before they return to Athens and social order is once again restored.

Although this is, on one level, a playful and romantic comedy, Goldstein’s version emphasizes the realism of the dream and the other themes in the play: love, play and art. He reminds us of the “mortal grossness” of our Western, industrial, paternalistic world and never lets us, as theatergoers out to escape our everyday lives, drift fully off to sleep.

From the set design to the music and the costumes, Goldstein bombards us with a hodgepodge of images from the history of Western civilization. The opening set itself resembles the original Greek proscenium-style theater—which literally sets the stage for the beginnings of Western history. It is also a subtle reminder that we are in a theater, a place of illusions.

The opening scene between the duke and duchess of Athens takes place in the Victorian era. From there, the audience gets bits and pieces of the ’80s punk era, the modern business world, Renaissance royalty, and the primitive rituals of tribal peoples. All of these anachronisms, it seems, comment on the universality of the themes in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” especially love. Although this timelessness works, this mix and match of clothing and musical styles borders on distracting.

While the Victorian costumes of the lovers and the royal court remind us of the dapper, gender-ordered society of the 1800s, those of the fairies grotesquely mix Victorian undergarments with punk hairstyles and spandex. Titania herself resembles an MTV rock video madam with her glittery hair and revealing bodice; even her changling boy could have passed for Elton John in his early disco days. It is only when Puck’s red mohawk and the primitive choreography of the fairies combine that this anachronism works—Puck portrays the powerful shaman controlling the actions of the characters. The tribal, almost islander, music reminds us that the realm of the fairies is non-Western, not us.

This is the only scene in the play where the music works. During the course of the performance, Goldstein forces us to endure industrial, apocalyptic music as well as an ’80s sounding, Jennifer Warrens/Joe Cocker, “Love Lift Me Up Where We Belong” rendition of the fairies song to their queen—projected over the loudspeaker. However, the playful “music” of the rustics, a compilation of body-part sounds, almost makes up for it. Almost.

Without previous exposure to the play, we never really know when the action moves into the forest. Goldstein’s set is overwhelmed with gray, metal tones. The rustics’ costumes provide the only splashes of vibrant color—a reminder of the innocence of childhood. Goldstein’s “Dream” never strays far from reality and lacks the romanticism of “antique fables.” We never fully buy into the magic of the fairies or the passion of the lovers, because Goldstein constantly reminds us where we really are. Despite this lack of believable passion, he has brilliantly transformed this play into a “most lamentable comedy”—combining both extremes of reality and dream at once.

Overall, this multifaceted play, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” remains entertaining for the less brooding audience member. The rustics’ version of “The Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe” and the lovers’ quarrels provide the usual ingredients for laughter-induced hernias. And remnants of the magic and playfulness of the dream can be found when we don’t look too hard. Very subtly, however, Goldstein calls love fickle, makes sex awkward and passion forced, and reaffirms that “man is but an ass.”

Through the course of the final act, Goldstein strips his set so that all that remains are the bare bones of an undressed stage. Our mischievous and magical fairy, Puck, is reduced to a janitor. Goldstein brings us full circle from the Greek proscenium to an empty, modern theater. The dream is clearly over. Caught up in his whirlwind of clothing styles, musical choices and references to eras in Western history, we are left “out of breath in this fond chase.”

Rich, L.E. (1995, October 12). ATC offers bleak ‘Dream.’ Arizona Daily Wildcat.

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