It is a challenging play for any director who, like a weaver, must take the work's entangled strands and present them, by curtain's fall, as whole cloth. And on opening night at the Pioneer Theatre Company, veteran director Paul Barnes was able to meet that challenge only halfway.
Barnes' beautiful production is admirably performed in the supernatural glade into which the characters' psyches travel. There, a fully realized and comic Oberon (Don Burroughs, channeling, at times, Jim Carrey) and a sensuous Titania (Celeste Ciulla), as king and queen of the fairies, play out their marital disputes amidst a woodland replete with verdant, towering stalks (courtesy of the imaginative Peter Harrison).
Even Puck (Christopher Gerson), costumed and coiffed in what only can be described as Kiss-meets-"Cats" (an odd choice by Susan Branch), satisfactorily enough embodies the magical energies of the netherworld. (Revealing in print the device Barnes uses to depict magical forces between characters would be a spoiler, but suffice it to say the device is, with few exceptions, innovative and effective.)
But Shakespeare's "Midsummer" was meant not as a several hours-long exploration of the magical world alone. That world is designed to house the dreams and nightmares of men and women of the human world - couples Hermia (Tarah Flanagan, in her Pioneer debut) and Lysander (the comic standout Michael Polak); and Demetrius (Bjorn Thorstad) and Helena (the lithe and eloquent Yvonne Woods).
While the human couples' performances are admirable, by the end of the play one feels little relief at their coming together at last. The fault lies not in their acting but in the fact that they, almost to a one, seem to have been told to rush through Shakespeare's language. Only Woods and sometimes Polak seem able, on their own, to embrace the lyrical script handed them on a platter by a master playwright.
The director's greatest lapse of judgment is in his direction of the rude mechanicals. The mechanicals, a farcical band of players always meant to execute Shakespeare's tour de force writing, are supposed to leave one rolling in the aisles with their pronouncement of Shakespeare's chewy dialogue.
In directing the mechanicals to rush through puns and malapropisms (in the case of poor Craig Bockhorn, playing the word-challenged Peter Quince, a near crime) - and to go completely for easy laughs, the production is bereft of the meta-theatrics which in every Shakespeare play take down the house. Only Rusty Ross, as Frances Flute/Thisbe is able fully to inhabit his characters and crack us up. And Tom Snout/Wall, played by Jason Tatom, is a pleasure to watch, in large part because he takes his time with the words he is meant to speak.
It's as if Barnes doesn't trust the language, or the local audience's ability to bear with it, or is afraid of the time that attending to language would add to the length of the production, and the result is that one of Shakespeare's most endearing characters, Bottom (Max Robinson), is tepid and pale at best. Robinson's lightless performance makes one long to put his lame and braying "ass" out of its misery. He has either been sorely instructed or terribly miscast. The former seems more likely, as Robinson is a 19-year veteran of Pioneer.
"Midsummer" is simultaneously Shakespeare's most normative and most subversive treatment of marriage. To address only the subversive and to assume that the normative world will take care of itself is a mis-step.
One has to hope that opening night mark came too soon for Barnes. As the production goes on for several weeks, perhaps he would be wise to take the human cast back into rehearsals and have them re-focus on the greatest power with which Shakespeare has entrusted them - the power of words, more magical than magic itself, to transform everything into a waking dream.
* JULIE CHECKOWAY can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-257-8611. Send comments to email@example.com.
'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
* WHERE: Pioneer Theatre Company, Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City
* WHEN: Friday; continues at 7:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays through March 1.
* RUNNING TIME: About 2 hours, 40 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission
* TICKETS: $21-$39 (K-12 students are half-price on Mondays and Tuesdays); 801-581-6961; www.pioneertheatre.org.
* BOTTOM LINE: PTC's production of Shakespeare's comedy is easy on the eyes but not so trippingly on the tongue.