Sweet Dream! The Finest Shakespeare in Years

I surely can’t be alone in joyfully acclaiming Edward Hall’s all-male A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I imagine tickets will be hard to come by, but you must beg for one if necessary, or batter down the doors of the theater and storm the place.

The extraordinary production by the British troupe known as Propeller ranks as one of the happiest experiences we could wish for at the theater. It also happens to be one of the funniest shows in town-an astonishing thing, all things considered. After all, everyone in the place is howling with laughter-at what? Shakespeare! Or a farce of romantic love (which can turn on a dime, as young romantic love does). As the theater-loving Duke puts it in the play:

Lovers and madmen have

such seething brains,

Such shaping fantasies, that

apprehend

More than cool reason ever

comprehends.

Still, we tend to dread A Midsummer Night’s Dream a bit. Not another Dream ! (Substitute at will, not another Twelfth Night / Romeo and Juliet !) How to deal once more with all those fairies, all that dust? The Dream is, famously, a play about real magic, and magic changes everything-including the transforming power of love and theater.

The achievement of Mr. Hall’s production is that it really has breathed fresh and astonishing life into the play-compelling us to see it with new eyes.

To say this is a Shakespeare production living in a different league from the middling King Lear at Lincoln Center wouldn’t be much of a compliment, I’m afraid; to compare it to the recent Pericles at B.A.M.-which actually managed to reverse the meaning of the play-would be no compliment at all. Let me throw my hat in the air, then, and declare it to be the finest Shakespeare I’ve seen since Cheek by Jowl’s unforgettable As You Like It at B.A.M. a few seasons ago.

It’s the same glorious production in its free, spontaneous spirit and the openhearted joy it takes in play (or playfulness), in the infectious aliveness and fun and ultimate tenderness of it all. The As You Like It was an all-male production, too. It wasn’t the first (and it won’t be the last)-cross-dressing is a British specialty that goes beyond camp to the ambiguous heart of the nation. England’s bewigged High Court judges have been known to relax in tutus, of course. But loving ballet is no crime. Boys-or, more likely, young men-played Shakespeare’s women, actresses having been banned from the Puritan stage lest they frighten the horses. The Bard appreciated the potential comedy in it: A girl, who’s played by a boy, disguises herself as a boy! He seized the opportunity in his comedies to play games with double and mistaken identities. Cross-dressing thus entered the mainstream of English theatrical life-continuing to this day with the traditionally male Widow Twanky of beloved British pantomime.

That said, Mr. Hall’s Dream is the first all-male production of the play I’ve seen, and my initial thought was that it had to be a mere gimmick. Unlike As You Like It , the Dream isn’t about the comedy of role-playing and gender. It’s about the magic of love, pure and simple (and dangerous). But here’s the crucial thing:

The Shakespeare tradition of men playing women is the reason why love between the sexes is described in his plays rather than acted out. It couldn’t be otherwise! Mr. Hall believes, rightly, that actors on the Elizabethan stage couldn’t express their physical attraction to each other. They had to talk about it instead-and, luckily for them, they had Shakespeare to supply the words for the most beautiful poetry of love and desire ever written.

It is said in Japanese Kabuki theater that only a man can truly play a woman. But the Kabuki actor transforms himself mysteriously and completely into a female. There’s no such artifice in Mr. Hall’s Dream. The revelation of his production is how the male actors playing the women remain very obviously men. Why, we even have a balding Helena and a hairy-chested Titania! And how apparently ridiculous is that ?

Think of them as a third gender, a force of unruly nature like Pierrot-or a pre-emptive strike against our expectations of what women should be. In one mad, innovative stroke, Mr. Hall and his brilliant costume designer, Michael Pavelka, have banished the romantic, stereotypical image of the play by inviting us to look at it-and hear it-anew.

I will hear that play;

For never anything can be amiss,

When simpleness and duty tender it.

Theseus will “hear”-not “see”-the amateur play about Pyramus and Thisby that’s about to be performed for his pleasure. Text is all! (All is in the text.) And simplicity can never be amiss.

My belief is that Shakespeare told us everything about his ideal form of theater through the wonderfully funny bad play performed by the endearing, slow-witted locals, Messrs. Quince, Snug, Bottom, Flute, Snout and Starvling.

Look at Snug’s problem with bringing in a wall during the action: “You can never bring in a wall. What say you, Bottom?” And Bottom replies that someone could pretend to be a wall: “Some man or other must present wall ….” Then all he need do is open his fingers so that the lovers can speak to each other through a little chink: “…let him hold his fingers thus, and through that cranny shall Pyramus and Thisby whisper.”

So you needn’t have a wall, and you needn’t have a set! It will work “if imagination amend them.” We’ll see a man “presenting” a wall, just as a man can “present” a woman. For the one nakedly conjures up the magic, while the audience imagines the wall or the woman.

In one of the funniest moments in the amateur play, Moonshine holds up a lantern. He’s playing the man in the moon, and the lantern is the moon. “This lanthorn doth the horned moon present,” he announces optimistically. He’s also holding up a thorn bush and has a toy dog on a lead. But the Duke-a literal-minded theatergoer-thinks Moonshine should be put in the lantern. “How is it else the man i’ the moon?”

At which Moonshine explodes. He might be a yokel, but he knows what he’s doing! “All that I have to say, is, to tell you that the lanthorn is the moon,” he insists indignantly; “I, the man in the moon; this thorn-bush, my thorn-bush; and this dog, my dog.”

In other words, Your Lordship, use your imagination !

And Simon Scardifield, the first rate-actor playing Moonshine, looked so hilariously, murderously aggrieved that Moonshine’s sunny beams turned to thunder-until he stormed off the stage in sulky protest, dragging his toy dog behind him.

The play within the Dream tells us that, in the ideal production Shakespeare has in mind, the actor-magician hides nothing up his sleeves-like Moonshine, like Wall, like the all-male troupe here:

Thou wall, O wall! O sweet, and

lovely wall!

Show me thy chink to blink through

with mine eyne!

Thanks, courteous wall ….

But in the end (and the beginning), it’s a question of talent. Ah, that . The all-male Dream isn’t bringing a fresh dynamic to the play by testosterone alone. The troupe of young players is immensely gifted. Special mention, perhaps, of Mr. Scardifield’s fine, disciplined work at the helm as Puck while doubling as Moonshine; the furious Helena of Robert Hands; the gilded Hermia of Jonathan McGuinness; and Tony Bell, gentlest of stage-struck Bottoms, most blessedly endowed of donkeys, and well-meant Weaver.

If I have a criticism, I’ll whisper it: Feverish midsummer dreams are erotic-with luck. But Mr. Hall prefers to tread the giddy line midway between bawdy and innocence. A bit more honest dirt might have gone down a treat.

It so happens the production that shaped my theatergoing life-and that of an entire generation-was Peter Brook’s 1972 A Midsummer Night’s Dream . It showed us, quite simply, the magical possibilities of a theater of the imagination. And, as time passed, its legend only increased-like a vision that, once seen, can never be repeated. It is always so in theater. But, I’m glad to say, Edward Hall’s new production stands in its own right as a lovely, remarkable achievement. It’s the best Dream since Mr. Brook’s all those years ago, and one we will always remember.