A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2014.
Directed by Julie Taymor.
Starring Kathryn Hunter, David Harewood, Tina Benko, Lilly Englert, Mandi Masden, Jake Horowitz, Max Casella, and Zach Appelman.
Julie Taymor’s filming of her stage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s comedies, but under Julie Taymor’s direction, that dream becomes an unnerving nightmare. Stage productions rarely seem to pass onto physical media but, after making the rounds in cinemas, Kino Lorber’s DVD release comes as a special treat. Midsummer’s always been full of dark elements, and sinister interactions, but the party atmosphere made it easier to swallow. Taymor realizes parties only look like celebrations, and when the music speeds up, the revelry pulls you in, ignoring the urge to run way.
Shakespeare’s lines still carry humor, and Taymor’s production is faithful, but darkness is a faithfulness to the text that uses a distinct inflection. Consider how the play starts out, with Helena (Mandi Masden) getting spawned by an inconstant lover, or the example Taymor gives, in a DVD bonus, of Hermia (Lilly Englert) being told who to marry, on sentence of death or nunnery. Levity can be forced on those situations easily, but it’s more interesting to talk about why they’re ruthless.
The solution to the play’s problems is a flower that can turn a person’s heart, and the play’s triumph is Puck (Kathryn Hunter) mistaking who needs its powers. When one lover remains under the flower’s spell, we’re supposed to accede to that outcome, because it removes any wrinkles from the ending, but if this is the play we’re supposed to applaud, its abusive views of romance need a challenge.
Without treating the plot as sacred, or requiring of spoiler warnings, here are some of the coups of Taymor’s Midsummer:
- Lilly Englert’s Hermia: Treated like a child, this is a Hermia who acts without cunning, who’s at a loss for people’s behavior, and isn’t thinking women’s lib when she wants to marry Lysander (Jake Horowitz), against her father’s wishes. Costume designer, Constance Hoffman, provides the impeccable dress to augment Englert’s performance. Lavender, puffy, and short, with a ruff that looks like a necklace when worn with lower necklines, adults are encouraged to see Hermia as a little girl, instead of a young woman to be taken seriously.
- Kathryn Hunter’s Puck: Puck can be the fool, but with movements that mirror a mime’s, and white make-up caked on to match, Hunter’s Puck is unpredictable and not someone you can trust for laughs.
- If the hunt scene before the wedding of Theseus (Roger Clark) and Hippolyta (Okwui Okpokwasili) feels reminiscent of The Lion King, there’s a reason for that. Taymor directed The Lion King, and was the first woman to win a Tony Award for directing a musical.
- Bottom’s (Max Casella) amateur theater, “Pyramus and Thisbe,” is usually played for laughs at the end of the show, and for the most part Taymor adheres to its silly entertainment, but then it gets to Thisbe’s death scene and, without notice, Zachary Infante’s acting elevates dramatically. He’s playing the death scene for real, taking off his female wig, and it’s a creative choice you don’t see, if it’s ever been done.
Bonus features are short but on juicy subjects, like the tech-savviness of a production that finds multiple ways to employ a plain sheet, or the double casting of the children as faeries and Rude Elementals — trees and rolling obstacles that make the forest alive at night, ever changeable and threatening to make our main characters lost. This isn’t a forest you walk into without extra care, but it’s because Taymor’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is frightening that you’ll want to see what all the ado is about.
Available now on DVD from Kino Lorber.