The inaugural show of the Pearl Theatre Company’s 2015 season is an co-production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, produced with the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, and Bedlam Theatre Company, and is now playing at the Pearl’s 42nd Street playhouse until November 1. The show is directed by Bedlam’s Eric Tucker, and promises to live out “Bottom’s fantasy of playing all the roles in this celebration of the transformative and intoxicating power of love.”
The idea behind the production is the madness of the dream-state, which is on display from the get-go, with an opening scene that switched the actress playing Hippolyta three times, before launching full-speed into the play. The five actors – Sean McNall, Joey Parsons, Mark Bedard, Jason O’Connell, and Nance Williamson– were dressed in futuristic sportswear, which complemented the industrial setting – John McDermott’s stripped-down set is accentuated by a quite spectacular lighting design, that uses well shifts into neon, and at one point, near darkness, that was unnerving, given the context. The set was akin to a warehouse, with bare concrete walls, and black box paraphernalia, such as folded ladders and loops of wire, stacked neatly against the walls. The acting area was a gravel pit, giving a touch of albeit muted colors to an otherwise bare stage. The austerity of the production focuses attention on the performers,
First and foremost, the architecture of the performance is extraordinary, and the skill of the ensemble is mesmerizing. The fluidity of the group physicality is near-flawless, and the switching in between roles is swift and precise. The problem for me was that the show seemed to lack directorial editing, and fell back on the actors’ quirks without restraint. Mark Bedard and Joey Parsons who played Lysander/Oberon/Flute/Thisbe and Hermia/Titania/Snout/Wall, were spectacular, conveying depth, gravity, and welcome moments of clarity and focus when they were the locus of their scenes. The remainder of the cast, particularly Jason O’Connell, who played Puck, were frenetic to the point of distraction. The driving characteristic of the production was the need to enact everything, from the incessant buzzing and hand-flapping, to indicate Puck’s identity as a bee, to the oft-repeated miming of Puck opening his chest to remove his own beating heart – replete with man-made sound effects. For an ostensibly abstract production, it often felt all too literal. Have a little faith in the text, chaps; it won’t let you down. Bottom’s artistic execution may be flawed, but his dreams of artistry need not be quite so patchy.
That is not to say that there weren’t flashes of brilliance, but these mostly occurred at moments where the production slowed down and just let the play work its magic. Scenes such as O’Connell’s shifts between Puck and Bottom during the rehearsal scene were mesmerizing, as the actors rolled back, frozen in their seats, during Puck’s critique of the scene. Bedard and Williamson’s Snug the joiner, played as creepily conjoined twins was superb. Puck’s threat of brutality, that bubbled into violence at the end of the first half was genuinely scary, but in retrospect, felt cheap and gimmicky when the menace failed to reappear in the “now the hungry lion roars” epilogue. What happened as a result of this directorial inconsistency is that the impact of Bottom’s transformation was minimized, and more problematically, there was not an adequate shift in pacing and direction when the production moved to Pyramus and Thisbe. By that point in the show, I had mime-fatigue, and was hoping that the lovers’ hands might be tied up, instead of their tongues.
Inexplicably, towards the end, the production played pre-recorded music, which immediately made me wonder why alternative media hadn’t been more consistently employed throughout the play. Given that the set featured a prominent blank wall of exposed concrete, it occurred to me how much more depth might have been given to the conceit with some carefully thought out multi-media. A stronger directorial vision might have welded this dream more carefully to the text, and created a truly subversive reimagining of Shakespeare’s play.
In this show, the lunatic, the lover, and the poet were all of imagination compact. Very compact. Although there was much to like in Bedlam’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it would have been nice to see a little more of the lover, and less of the lunatic.