Well. Last season I was worried that the Pearl Theatre had become complacent. Years of working together can turn actors and directors lazy, and there were signs that this company’s members were no longer challenging each other. Productions of The Winter’s Tale and Don Juan were not only stale but betrayed a lack of faith in the texts, often indulging in out-of-place, cheap attempts at humor in blatant disregard to the humor that was already there.
Enter Eric Tucker, who has become known for directing typically elaborate plays with small casts in smaller productions. The last time I saw one of his shows, he made the most of the Access Theater, staging part of Saint Joan in their lobby. Teaming up with the Pearl and the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, Mr. Tucker is now mounting A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that save haven for uninspired directors everywhere, who often mistake it for a children’s play and earn braindead applause from audiences who don’t know the difference between Puck and Tinker Bell.
The result is a Pearl as transfigured as anyone in Midsummer, and the last thing one could say about this production is that it is lazy, complacent, or uninspired. Dressed in clothing that seems to combine the styles of soccer uniforms and mafia tracksuits—and sporting neon sneakers—five actors, impeccably choreographed, perform all the roles, produce all the sound effects with their mouths, and mime in lieu of props. Pop culture references are cluster bombed throughout. Though eventually finding narrative coherence, the play begins in bedlam, with the cast hopping between parts and Hippolyta chained and growling like King Kong freshly arrived in the United States—a rather awkward decision, I should say, considering the almost universally ignored racial and imperial aspects of her marriage to Theseus. (Later she will switch to a gruff, Eastern European accent.) Punning on Snug’s profession (he is a joiner), both Mark Bedard and Nance Williamson play the mechanical, their temples pressed together, his lines recited in celestial, monotonous unison. The implicit beastiality between Bottom and Titania is made very explicit. And a moment close to the end, which requires Bottom to awake and Puck to provide commentary, puts actor Jason O’Connell, responsible for both parts, in a sticky situation; he indefatigably rises and falls as he alternates between the weaver and the fairy.
Speaking of indefatigability, this cast is onstage the entire show, and nobody is left standing still for very long; the motormouthed barrage of noises that come out of Mr. O’Connell’s mouth rival those of Police Academy‘s Michael Winslow, his energy and impersonations recalling an untethered Robin Williams. As Bottom, he speaks and honks with equal measure; as Puck, he has a delicious menace that is clearly in the text but rarely seen in performance. (Most actors opt for avuncular and mischievous.) Joey Parsons’ Tom Snout is hysterically proud of his performance as “Wall,” and Sean McNall—that Brutus who left both the Pearl and New York City for the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival last year—returns to bring some sanity to the proceedings. Of course, when you encourage such lunacy, certain things are lost, and the actors, rarely looking at each other, often seem to be performing each in a vacuum—though, admittedly, the mechanicals do evoke a sense of genuine fellowship, offering our only grasp of humanity here.
At its worst, Mr. Tucker’s Midsummer can feel like a hack standup comedian tackling the Bard: “What if Pyramus were played by Marlon Brando? I think it’d go a little something like this…” At its anarchic best, it explodes most if not all of our placid assumptions about this play and demonstrates that no Shakespearean convention is fixed. One recalls the tenth point of the Manifesto of Futurism: “We will destroy the museums.” This production should be required viewing for anyone who wants to direct Shakespeare, as it illustrates that, in destroying museums, we often discover something fresh about works of art that are very old.