For the last four summers, I've spent a month in Moscow seeing some of the most exciting theatre I can imagine. It's hard to explain exactly what is so magical about what we see over there, but a lot of it boils down to theatricality. They are not so tied down to "realism" as we are in the US. They are interested in imagination, in vivid visual communication, in using imagery at least as powerfully as text. There is an understanding that theatre is unique in its ability to make magic happen in front of our eyes.
That was what I saw in Julie Taymor's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It was broadcast as part of Fathom's series of live theatre in movie theatres, and the closest location for us was in Gettysburg, PA. So we drove two hours and sat in a nearly empty theatre waiting. Eventually we probably ended up with about 20 people. And those 20 people shared a remarkable evening together.
The film was preceded by a brief interview with Julie Taymor - sort of a full screen version of director's notes in the playbill. She talked about the way in which her Puck invites the audience to dream, and the ways in which the characters experience all the nightmares of love before embarking on their happy marriages. The images laid over her introduction, in my opinion, gave a little too much away, but they also elevated our expectations. We couldn't wait to begin.
The sheer inventiveness of the staging was a delight. The use of flowing white cloth as clouds, dresses, the bower, walls, a cyc... and whatever it needed to be was deliciously theatrical and so well choreographed. The fairies spoke in this beautiful, discordant almost-chant. They were mostly children, and Taymor used other performers in black or in fairy garb to move them around, allowing their movements to feel fluid and other-worldly. The forest was made out of bamboo and chorus members - it was something that the lovers had to negotiate in a very real way as they made their way beyond the gates of "civilized" society. The use of shadow and projections was discerning and powerful, taking every advantage of the technology and budget available, but without beating you over the head with it. The lovers were charming - particularly Helena. The way they slowly lost their clothes as they lost their minds was similar to the way things progressed in a production I was in several years ago - down to Lysander taking a good, sultry whiff of Helena's shoe. Bottom's donkey head was amazing! It was all out donkey, but it also retained the nose and facial hair of the actor, so it was sort of delightfully cartoony. Plus, the actor had two little hand pieces that controlled the mouth and lips of the head, which created such a realistic, but still delightfully theatrical effect! Puck was an amazing, double-jointed, slightly androgynous figure whose strangeness made our dear Robin Goodfellow a clear denizen of this dream world. Oberon was so beautiful - his fluidity of movement and resonant voice were out of this world. And his journey from gleefully tormeting his wife to growing tired of the silliness was articulated better than I have ever seen it before. Titania was sexy and powerful and had these awesome lights on her costume that kept her face constantly lit, so sometimes it seemed like her head was just floating. The mechanicals were Brooklyn workmen with personality and passion coming out their ears. The rotund black man playing Wall was a particular favorite for me (Greenville folks: Mr. Jason may well have a doppelganger!). And after all the hilarity of Pyramus and Thisbe, a moment that stopped me in my tracks was Thisbe's discovery of the dead Pyramus. It turned out that Flute could really act - and he had the audience on stage, in the live theatre, and in the movie theatre holding our breath. It was really beautiful.
This ended up being one of my favorite kinds of productions to see: it's one that gave me tons of ideas, but not necessarily the ideas that I saw. The imagery and interpretation were exciting - and I'm sure I'll end up stealing some things from this production one day. But much more exciting was the ideas I found myself coming up with. The production was inspiring. I found myself seeing things in this familiar script (one I've performed twice and seen... I don't know how many times) that I hadn't seen before, or that I was seeing in a new light. And I walked away with ideas of my own that had grown out of being so close to such excellent work. I love watching good theatre that makes me want to make good theatre.