Seattle Shakespeare Company moves the setting of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” to a 1930s musical theater company, which means no magical forest — which means something important is missing, writes critic Misha Berson.
Are we backstage at a theater? Or on a drab movie soundstage? Chorus girls prance with feather fans and glowing hula hoops. Other players burst into song or tap routines in mid-speech.
There’s a lot of show business in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Seattle Shakespeare Company (SSC) — some pleasing, some tacky. But where, oh where, is the forest fairyland and magic that the Bard of Avon’s “Dream” is truly made of? This production unfolds on one drab set, and in one flat sphere of consciousness.
Bold, modern takes on Shakespeare often shift the era and style of a play. But the best preserve the essence of the text and tease new meanings from its rich loam.
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
by William Shakespeare. Through May 21, Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center; tickets from $31 (206-733-8222 or seattleshakespeare.org).
Here, like those peek-a-boo fans wielded by the clunky kick line, the concept obscures. It’s as if director George Mount and his SSC cohorts were fixated on conjuring a faux-1930s movie musical and contorted a perfectly formed play to do so — without replacing the Bard’s “most rare vision” with another as beguiling.
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A salute to the European solstice revels celebrated for centuries, with a debt to Ovid and Chaucer tales, “Midsummer” spins a gossamer web of passions and high jinks in several realms.
In the aristocratic court of Theseus (played by Mount, as a crusty old duffer with an inexplicable Southern drawl) and his betrothed Hippolyta (Crystal Dawn Munkers, with an iffy Brooklyn accent), rigid law and custom threaten the future bliss of young lovers.
When the bullying dad Egeus (Brandon Felker) nixes the bond between Hermia (Mallory Cooney King) and her boyfriend Lysander (Casey Raiha), the couple flee. Their pal Helena (Keiko Green) and her resistant crush Demetrius (Adam St. John) tag along.
A retreat from “civilization” into a misty woodland is a common sojourn of transformation in Shakespearean comedy. Here, the strange new land is the domain of fairy king Oberon (Terence Kelley) and his queen Titania (Vanessa Miller). Served by fairy minions, including the sprite factotum Robin Goodfellow, aka Puck (John David Scott), these ethereal royals are working out relationship issues of their own.
Rehearsing a play in the forest, an amateur acting troupe including Nick Bottom (MJ Sieber) and other workmen are not immune to enchantment, either. Under Oberon’s spell, Bottom is suddenly turned into a donkey — and seduced by the equally spellbound Titania.
A sublime blueprint for farce, romance and a sly rumination on what “fools these mortals be,” this eternally popular Shakespeare romp is threaded with songs and jests.
This version sports a swinging onstage jazz band and the trappings of 1930s show-folk musicals a la Busby Berkeley’s “Footlight Parade” — a premise most realized when stronger singers like Kelley and Miller hold forth, garbed in designer Doris Black’s finery.
But Shakespeare’s supple verse is awkwardly wedded to melodies (initially composed by Nir Sadovnik for a 2008 “Midsummer” set in Las Vegas). And some of the choicest lines are tossed off so casually or mumbled so quietly that they seem as incidental as B-grade Hollywood chatter. Scott, for instance, is a dandy tap dancer, but muffles most of Puck’s witticisms.
Some of the inherent merriment in the DNA of “Midsummer” pokes through. Green and her fellow young romancers put some verve into their scrambled affections. And the workmen’s bumbling skit about another lovestruck couple (the mythic Pyramus and Thisbe) triggers surefire laughs — especially for Sieber’s enthusiastic thespian Bottom, who is Falstaffian in his zest and lust.
But try as the cast might, something essential is amiss in this outing of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It’s no longer a fairy tale. And you can’t see the forest — nor the trees.