The expectations one has for watching a taping of a theatrical play will likely vary from person to person, hinged on how they interpret the statement: "It's as if I were actually there". Does that mean the camera stays predominately static, as if they're an audience member who remains in their seat and has a clear, unbiased view of the stage? Or, does that mean that the point-of-view closely moves with the actors and concentrates on the nuances of their performances, enhancing the cinematic tempo by zooming in and revealing character details that might not be so readily visible during a stage performance? Other productions have attempted to blur the lines of cinema and authentic theatricality with handcrafted recordings tailored for media -- take Kenneth Branagh's wonderful hybrid version of Hamlet -- but they often find themselves tilting to one side or the other, either as too much movie or too much theater. Julie Taymor's screened rendition of A Midsummer Night's Dream is a game-changer in that regard, crafting visual allure and dramatic intimacy without sacrificing stage presence.
Taylor's run with A Midsummer Night's Dream lasted from October of 2013 to January of 2014 at Brooklyn's Theatre for a New Audience, utilizing a spacious yet intimate layout for the stage while retelling William Shakespeare's classic comedy of meddlesome spirits, young love, and a play-within-a-play. Hermia (Lilly Englert) has fallen in love with Lysander (Jake Horowitz), yet her father, Lord Egeus (Robert Langdon Lloyd), wishes for her to marry Demetrius (Zach Appelman); Helena (Mandi Masden), meanwhile, yearns for Demetrius. The complexities of their amorous affairs lead them to flee into the forest, to which they enter the domain of the fairies, especially that of Puck (Kathryn Hunter), servant to fairy-kind Oberon. Impishly, Puck contorts the desires of the young lovers, while also messing with the mentalities of workers in the midst of crafting a play for the stately wedding of Egeus and Hippolyta (Okwui Okpokwasili) … as well as with the headspace of Titania, Oberon's estranged queen. What ensues is a night of chaos, passion, and mischief that approaches realizations for all involved, while obscuring the line between reality and fantasy.
Those who have seen Julie Taymor's cinematic endeavors -- her award-winning biography Frida, her Beatles-driven homage Across the Universe, her prior Shakespearean efforts with Titus and The Tempest -- know that the language, inventiveness, and enthrallment of visuals are of chief importance to her. This transitions exceptionally well to her stage performance of A Midsummer's Night Dream: the costume designs for the fairy hierarchy reminds one of that textured, ornate, yet still sparse and effortless detailing from her Shakespeare films, though the enrapturement of the setting doesn't kick into gear until the characters venture into the woodlands. Once there, Taymor utilizes strategic lighting and the motion of those bamboo shoots, sometimes bathed in blue light and other times touched with almost-blacklight vivid greens and purples, to create a surprisingly alive, spellbinding setting. Both subtle and attention-drawing, the realignment and levitation of the woodland plays a pivotal role in the immersive properties of Taymor's environment.
In tone, tempo, and sporadic happenings, this A Midsummer Night's Dream evokes an attitude somewhat reminiscent of what a Cirque du Soleil performance of Shakespeare's comedy might look like without the circus-style feats of strength and agility, an infusion of modern and whimsical flourishes. Fittingly, Puck fills the role of a jesterly assistant to the forest's ringleader -- fairy king Oberon -- as the character prances between surreal imagery of sleeping spells, pillow fights, and prancing deer, embodied by Kathryn Hunter's entirely ambiguous and quirkily distinctive face-painted performance, one that'd fit in with the broadly animated characterizations of silent-era cinema. She bridges the gaps between such scenes involving subtle choreography of en pointe ballet dancers creating wilderness animals and an animatronic head bringing to life a donkey-human hybrid, elevating the fanciful nature of Shakespeare's gradient of love's turmoil with charismatic puppet-masters pulling the strings.
The intentions of A Midsummer Night's Dream hinge on both comedy and romanticism, but only one side of that emotional spectrum resonates in Julie Taymor's production, and it might not be the one you'd expect. Taymor directs her cast to telegraph their lines with fluid, almost contemporary comedic timing and staging, and their collective performances form into an updated, articulate, and genuinely humorous depiction of Shakespeare's zaniness, particularly underscored by Max Casella as the enthusiastic driving force behind the play-within-a-play's troupe of performers. While the rest of the cast members execute their characters with grace and power -- David Harewood is magnificent as a simmering, restrained Oberon; Tina Benko is a majestic Titania underneath her twisted blue dress and the small individual lamps shining on her face -- the dynamics of romance and sensuality are undermined by the younger cast members' lack of intimate chemistry with one another. Luckily, the fiery arguments that eventually erupt between them are another story, emphasizing where their rapport truly excels (and should ultimately excel), amplifying the foolhardiness of their affections in brave, funny clashes.
Shot by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and further scored by Oscar-winning composer Elliot Goldenthal, this taping of A Midsummer Night's Dream was specifically tailored by director Julie Taymor to accentuate her play's many strengths, which includes closely following actors as they move about the stage. Something unique and noteworthy occurs in the synergy created by the quality of the performances, the vivid production design, and the specificity of the camera's framing and focus upon the actors: Taymor gets her theatrical presentation to feel natural and movielike without deliberately avoiding the constraints of the stage and the often-embellished projection of the actors. Duller stretches in the two-and-a-half-hour span can only be helped so much by this; coupled with overtly "industrial" costume and set decoration, the scenes involving the craftsmanship of the play-within-a-play feel detached and lethargic against the ethereal happenings. Regardless, Taymor's custom recording of her Midsummer Night's Dream goes beyond making the audience feel like they're there.
Video and Audio:
With Academy Award-caliber talent behind the scenes of this modern recording, it's no surprise that the Blu-ray rendering of A Midsummer Night's Dream rises to the occasion on Blu-ray, especially in the 1.78:1-framed, 1080p digital transfer of the material. The color palette almost universally steers toward colder tones, lots of blues and lower-saturation skin tones, which amplifies the mild metallic depth of makeup and the bold splashes of neon green and pink that do emerge from the production. Darkness, of course, envelops the space surrounding the stage and casts shadows upon the stage, but the contrast keeps them inky black and doesn't intrude on details unless intended. When surrounded by such darkness, it can be difficult to focus upon depth and fine detail, but this transfer does a great job of accentuating the contours of faces and bodies, focusing on details in the costumes and reflections on the floor, and keeping the camerawork looking fluid throughout it. There's some inherent smoothness and ghosting involved with dealing with shooting under these conditions, but it's a beautiful transfer nevertheless.
The audio recording comes in both 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, which sounds about as splendid as the film looks. Of course, the crucial element of this track is the dialogue, both raised voices and reserved, hushed whispers, all of which find a comfortable, clear place in the center channel. Hitting that wonderful balance between cinematic and theatrical resonance, the dialogue remains strong and intelligible while also sporting the slightly muffled responsiveness to the theater's surroundings, holding onto both illusions throughout. The music sounds phenomenal, especially the twang of a harpsichord that travels between the front surround speakers quite fluidly. Sounds of the audience's laughter and other responses can be heard in the surround channels for immersion, while the pitter-patter of feet upon the stage's floor and the thump of pillows contacting other bodies -- as well as a slap here and there -- offer tremendous, yet spatially-aware strength and clarity. English subtitles are available.
A few brief featurettes are available from Kino. Invitation to a Dream (3:05, 16x9 HD) doubles as both a mini-commentary from director Julie Taymor about the design and intentions of her play, and as a quasi-advertisement that could roll during commercials for the film production. The Rude Elementals (4:22, 16x9 HD) elaborates on the "raw energy" of the Rude Elementals, the spirits that assist Puck throughout the play that are cast by children, while Titania and Oberon (4:03, 16x9 HD) takes a broad approach to the two primary fairy gods and how they can be interpreted in the film. Interviews with Taymor and the actors form into roughly fifteen minutes of material that's worth checking out after a screening.
There's also a pair of Trailers.
Julie Taymor's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is a visually hypnotic, convincingly magical, and surprisingly funny rendition of William Shakespeare's wild comedy about the volatile aspects of the grand designs behind love and relationships. Perhaps the love aspect could've been stronger between the young actors themselves, but the whimsy of other-worldly forces meddling in the affairs of man -- and the unyielding amorous and combative energies that emerge between them -- are profoundly engaging and exquisitely performed. The visuals are the star of the show here, though, focused on crafting persuasively dreamlike surroundings and mythical presences to certain characters, all of which has Taymor's signature thumbprint all over 'em. It's an accurate, yet contemporary and engaging production, which has been expertly photographed to create an onscreen experience that fits somewhere between cinema and theater. This Blu-ray looks and sounds terrific, too, and comes with a decent quarter-hour of interview featurettes. Very strongly Recommended.