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First Nighter: Julie Taymor's <i>A Midsummer Night's Dream</i> Hits and Misses

If you know William Shakespeare'sand Julie Taymor's several publicity-nabbing productions -- many theater-goers are quite familiar with both -- then you kind of know what to expect when the latter Taymor takes on the former Shakespeare's comedy of love confused.
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If you know William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Julie Taymor's several publicity-nabbing productions -- many theater-goers are quite familiar with both -- then you kind of know what to expect when the latter Taymor takes on the former Shakespeare's comedy of love confused. What you get visually will knock your socks off. What you hear will keep your socks on.

Well, whadya know, that's exactly what Julie Taymor, returning from her Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark exploits, delivers as a kick-off to the Theatre for a New Audience's new and first permanent home base in Brooklyn. It may be, though, that the edge is taken off those visual stunts by increasing familiarity--the flying (here by Airealistic), the floating banners, the large cloth panels disappearing into holes in the floor, and various other recognizable Taymor notions.

You're already wowie-zowied for the initial four or five minutes before a single audible word is uttered.There's a small bed at the center of the thrust stage into which climbs that always superb shape-shifter (remember Caryl Churchill's Skriker) Kathryn Hunter as Puck. She feigns sleep -- okay it's fair enough to suggest the play is Puck's midsummer night's dream -- as the bed rises and disappears into a large piece of fabric hoisted by actor-stagehands.

Only after a few more razzle-dazzlers take place -- over Elliot Goldenthal's moody scoring -- do the affianced Duke Theseus (Roger Clark) and Queen Hippolyta (Okwui Okpokwasili) appear from a small white upstage manor, and the play proper begin. Lord Egeus (Robert Langdon Lloyd) rips into a complaint that daughter Hermia (Lilly Englert) refuses to marry the approved Demetrius (Zach Appelman) but prefers Lysander (Jake Horowitz).

And so Shakespeare's plot gets underway -- with poor Demetrius-infatuated Helena (Mandi Masden) completing the star-crossed, Athenian forest-bound young lovers foursome, rustic Bottom (Max Casella) and fellow Pyramus-Thisbe players starting rehearsals and Oberon (David Harewood) seeking revenge on Titania (Tina Benko) for appropriating a young boy amid other fairy-world doings.

Maybe at this point, it's best to list some of the pluses in this some-pluses-some-minuses undertaking. Maybe begin with Constance Hoffman's gorgeous costumes. The most gorgeous of them are worn by Titania and Oberon, but Puck's ruched trousers are only one of the myriad additional clever ideas Hoffman comes up with. And a special mention goes to the cute send-up of Taymor's Lion King's mask in a crucial late scene.

Es Devlin--last seen at the Park Avenue Armory with the impressive Massive Attack v Adam Curtis -- gets those broad sheets flying high and Oberon's lifting-and-lowering platform going and poles dropping and rising and carried about as the ominous, dream-inducing woods. It's a non-stop challenge he meets fully. Donald Holder's lighting, Matt Tierney's sound and Sven Ortel's projections all enhance the spectacle Taymor favors.

As for the playing, that's another kettle of fish. Yes, indeed, Hunter is marvelous. Frequently puckish in her performances, she's more than puckish here. She's a memorable Puck in a red wig with partial fade. Benko is just as good -- and absolutely stunning -- in her Titania garb. When she says, "Methinks I was enamored of an ass," she gives by far the night's funniest line reading.

Also turning in good-to-better turns are Appelman as a riled Demetrius, Clark as commanding King Theseus, Joe Grifasi as earnest rustic Peter Quince, William Youmans as blasé rustic Robin Starveling, Jacob Ming-Trent as plodding rustic Tim Snout and Harewood as an Oberon of such muscular grandeur that women will swoon and men will quake.

Turning in fair-to-poor turns are, it's sad to say, the three lovers who aren't Demetrius. One of them gesticulates so much I wanted to look away; another is all but unintelligible while playing insipid. No need to say anything more, other than that when the young quartet at sixes and sevens quarrel in the forest and eventually engage in a pillow fight, there's not a smile to be had. And that's in a sequence that often has audiences laughing out loud. As Bottom, Casella does work awfully hard to be amusing, but hard work visible is never much of a cause for jollity.

Any onlooker might be forgiven for eventually wondering whether the good actors ended up directing themselves, and the lesser actors didn't have the wherewithal to do the same.

So taking the insufficiencies into consideration, I began to reconsider Taymor's triumphs and near triumphs. (Spider-Man, at least early on, looked as if it could recoup its huge investment.) She's worked with Theatre for a New Audience on four occasions before, even on a comedy, The Taming of the Shrew. But more of her Bard attacks -- cf. both stage and screen versions of Titus Andronicus -- have been serious works. With that in mind, perhaps I can be excused for starting to think that when it comes to the sense-of-humor department, Taymor's not overburdened.

And now a note on the theater: It's a treat to report that the building, evidently the first new "classical theater" seen in New York City in over 80 years, is a genuine event. Designed by Hugh Hardy and H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture, it contains a large and easily adaptable three-tiered black box. Seems to me the theater-savvy Hardy has acknowledged that he's modeled the auditorium on the Cottesloe, the smallest and most chameleon-like of London's National Theatre spaces. Interestingly, the Cottesloe is being redone at the moment.

By the way, since this Midsummer Night's Dream is a Julie Taymor production, cynical ticket buyers may wonder if any of the actors were injured during the performance I attended. The answer is a blessed no. On the other hand, it's confirmed that someone in the audience was hit by a small piece of falling scenery. Uh-oh, a midsummer night's dread.