Hippolyta (Okwui Okpokwasili) has become something of a litmus test for me, her casting a fair indication of how serious any given director is about A Midsummer Night’s Dream. An Amazonian Queen, Hippolyta’s marriage to Theseus (Roger Clark) frames the play but the context of this marriage is often ignored. In his second line, Theseus admits to her, “I woo’d thee with my sword, / And won thy love, doing thee injuries.” In other words, he likely conquered her land, raped her, and then forced the impending marriage before finally making an attempt to “wed [her] in another key.” If this sounds much darker than the children’s puppet theater Midsummer has often become, remember that the other marriages in the play—between the Athenians Hermia (Lilly Englert) and Lysander (Jake Horowitz), Helena (Mandi Masden) and Demetrius (Zach Appelman)—can only happen once the gods drug them into loving each other. Furthermore, our bully Bottom (Max Casella) is trapped (albeit happily so) with Titania (Tina Benko); when she becomes enamored with the ass, she dismisses any idea he may have of leaving: “Out of this wood do not desire to go: / Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no.” Sexual agency is nearly non-existent in Shakespeare’s comedy.
I had long given up hope of seeing my Hippolyta, knowing that the popularization of the Bard and in particular of his Midsummer meant that directors, fearing a low audience turnout, would blow past its more unsettling implications. Perhaps, then, the play needed Julie Taymor, whose awe-inspiring effects could make up for any aggressively feminist interpretation—when Puck (Kathryn Hunter) is dancing in the air and flowers are exploding in the background, more people are likely to ignore the quiet (or not so quiet) subversiveness of the text. What a surprise, what a delight, then, to have my cynicism refuted when Ms. Okpokwasili walks onstage: with skinny arms and a shaved head draped in a shawl, she has blazing eyes of the subaltern, of a woman both military and sexually subjugated. This may seem like a trivial point to most, but we Bardolators are sick and tired of Shakespeare’s plays being hammered into acceptability for gimmicky restagings or broad (and thus flat) renderings. Ms. Taymor, in a small and subtle move, has demonstrated that her Midsummer is more than a venue for showing off her impressive stage work (though her stage work is impressive), but also a rigorous and intellectual production of Shakespeare’s most misunderstood play.
To be fair, she is aided by a phenomenal cast. Standouts include Mr. Casella, whose Italian-American take on Bottom is surprisingly effective; his troupe’s performance of Pyramus and Thisby does an excellent job of combining the verbal shortcomings of the players with belly-laugh physical comedy. (Though Zachary Infante’s Francis Flute, played as a stereotypical and almost incomprehensible Latino, unfortunately falls flat.) Bottom, of course, is second in lighthearted wit only to John Falstaff, and Mr. Casella’s ease and joy are thoroughly infectious. Meanwhile, the androgynous, wonderfully tiny Ms. Hunter, whose body moves like a malfunctioning mechanical robot abandoned on the Island of Lost Toys, gives us an utterly breathtaking Puck; it is undoubtedly the interpretation by which all others should be compared.
If I have deliberately avoided writing about Ms. Taymor’s effects, it because describing them would in some way diminish their initial effect—but rest assured they are fabulous. Needless to say, this is both the smartest and most magical Midsummer you are likely to see for some time. It is also the darkest and the funniest, funniest precisely because it is the darkest. It is certainly the best I have ever had the pleasure of viewing.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs through January 12th at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. 262 Ashland Place Brooklyn, NY. 2 hours 50 minutes. One intermission.