In the festive celebration that concludes A Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare unites three worlds in a happiness that seems impossible at the height of the action. How a production manages the celebration is the clearest measure of its success. Is it tacked on, a concession to Elizabethan ideology? Or is it genuinely fulfilling, a logical and moving resolution of the tensions that have come before?
Through the medium of Theseus's rationalism the play seeks a firm center from which to view both language and love. The wedding feast celebrates the arrival at such a center, admitting at the same time (with the faeries' epilogue) that the civilized necessity of a norm also means a sacrifice of the rarer qualities of experience. Humor - whether the burlesque of Bottom and his crew or the various lovers' comedy of errors - is always rooted in the larger pattern of the play, the mirroring of worlds even in the distortion of comparison. A production, then, must honor the special quality of each of the play's three worlds if its conclusion is to be at all genuine.
Everyone, though, is laughing so hard in Puck Productions' slapstick presentation of AMidsummer Night's Dream in Concord that the spirit of Shakespeare's play is sacrificed to a short-lived gain in the humor of the moment. Far from distinguishing the worlds of the play as a means of working toward the fifth act, the direction plays every scene for its gag potential, disregarding character and setting in its rush for laughs.
A drunken Theseus (Christopher Gay) and a cackling Puck (Jerry Chasen) underline the crudity that dominates the production. The airy Puck sneering in a bathing suit, like the sober Theseus enamored of his wine, hamper belief in the realization of Shakespeare's play even before the characterizations become offensive. Robert Rahaim's foaming Lysander adds to the assault in its lack of restraint. In fact, all four lovers stomp about the stage (the men literally climbing up the women's skirts) in an excessive display that turns grace into grossness. The result is that the fifth act has nothing at all to celebrate because no understanding of the play has even been attempted.
James Donnellan's Bottom, though, is the brilliant exception. Playing in virtual isolation from the rest of the performers, Donnellan's antics turn Bottom into a Shakespearean Groucho Marx. His dying Pyramus (Bottom's part in the play-within-the-play) is a stunning piece of comedy; his love scene with Marianna Houston as Titania (complete with perhaps the most loveable ass's head in stage history) is remarkable for a warmth and control wholly absent elsewhere in the production.
Originally Published in The Boston Phoenix, August 28, 1973