A Midsummer Night's Dream
playwright William Shakespeare
company Pearl Theater
theater Pearl Theater
Mark Bedard, Sean McNall, Jason O’Connell, Joey Parsons, & Nance Williamson
director Eric Tucker
choreography Birgitta Victorson
set John McDermott
costumes Jessica Wegener Shay
lights Eric Southern
sound Mikail Fiskel
An exhilarating Midsummer at the Pearl reduces the show to five players, a bare stage, and no props. Yet it may be the most visually stunning production I’ve ever seen. Throughout the show, the actors mutate and contort themselves to create strange stage images and impressive CGI-like metamorphoses. The show opens with a performer aping a gorilla. Then Duke Theseus and his train arrive to hunt, bate, and shoot the beast. This is Midsummer influenced by Lynch and Cronenberg, and its fairies are the stuff of Guillermo del Toro’s nightmares.
The no-prop, all-physical style frees Jason O'Connell from the masks and prosthetics that obscure most Bottoms. O’Connell plays the part as an everyman who’s vaguely aware of and disturbed by his transformation into a monster. Opposite him, Joey Parsons makes Titania an impressively uncanny presence, moving her arms in slow ripples to suggest the billowing of her gown as her Titania floats regally in the air. Her sexual conquest of Bottom has an element of rape to it, with her fairies dragging him into an S/M scenario with no safe-word. In this Midsummer, the love-flower is a thorny trident that gets stabbed into the victim’s eyes.
Eric Tucker, the director, has already established himself as an inventive interpreter of Shak with Bedlam Theater and with Women of Will, a two-actor feminist perspective on Shak’s career. He reaches a new level with Midsummer by finding a stage correlative for the alchemy of Shak’s poetry. His performers alter their bodies in the same way that metaphor transforms an image. Throughout the play Puck describes his power of transformation, and it’s the core of O’Connell’s performance. His Puck is mercurial as the Genie in Aladdin, taking regular form as a buzz-winged demonoid.
The human characters swat at this hornet-like fairy, who from their POV is insect-sized. This trick of perspective is a signature of Tucker’s; in Midsummer he also fractures time, moving back and forth in the play at strange moments. He repeats Puck’s claims of mutability, once as a soliloquy at intermission and then backwards at the return (like a satanic record). Tucker also revisits Bottom’s transformation from different POVs over the show’s three hours.
These two moments are the foundation of Tucker’s radical Midsummer. But what makes the Pearl’s staging (co-produced with the Hudson Valley Shak Festival) a work of genius is that it doesn’t sacrifice the play’s delights to its dark vision. The lovers are still full of delightful follies, and the clowns are as bumptious as ever. O’Connell may stand out as Tucker’s onstage surrogate, but all five actors cohere as an ensemble and have stand-out moments. The staging is protean and manic, but its action is always clear as day and at the service of Shak’s tale.
Tucker’s Bedlam is one of two New York companies who are rising to the challenge that Shak’s endless linguistic invention poses (the other is the Fiasco Theater). Both companies slim the cast size and double- and triple-cast actors, ignoring gender and type. They relax the realistic impulse that lies under most productions. By following the playwright’s lead—those plots, that verse, all the plays-within-plays—they prove (if any proof was needed) that Shak is great material for experimental theater. It’s too soon to call them the vanguard of a movement. But between this Midsummer and Fiasco’s Two Gents last spring, NYC in 2015 is the scene of superb, forward-looking Shakespeare.
The Pearl Theater's Midsummer Night's Dream runs from Sep 8 to Nov 1 at 555 W. 42nd Street.
photos Russ Rowland