Most dreams require the services of an interpreter, which is probably why Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is a director's show. Good roles for actors may abound, but the director really decides whether the events add up to a romance or a romp, a reverie or a nightmare.
That celebrated experimenter Peter Brook once shut the play up in a tight white box equipped with trapezes, thereby accentuating the sheer tumble of acrobatics in the piece. French director Ariane Mnouchkine staged it in a circus arena covered with animal pelts, an approach intended to underscore the raw cruelty and latent bestiality of so much forest madness. At Arena Stage, where "Midsummer" began a holiday engagement Saturday night, director David Chambers clearly views the play as a vast mingling of earth, water and air, and the creatures who inhabit those kingdoms.
In this provocative interpretation, greatly abetted by set designer Heidi Landesman and costumer Marie Anne Chiment, the realm of Titania and her fairies is an on-stage swimming pool, edged with stone. Oberon and Puck dwell in the wind in the trees, an art nouveau canopy of gently twisting branches. In between, on a rippling floor which resembles a bluish moonscape, squirm all of Shakespeare's foolish mortals -- the capricious lovers, who are caught up in the complexities of courtship, and the bumbling rustics, who are having difficulties of their own rehearsing "The Most Lamentable Comedy and Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisby."
This is not to say that these sundry kingdoms are exclusive of one another. Indeed, Chambers has established the various boundaries precisely so that he can violate them. Early in the show, a full moon rises out of the water and climbs into the night sky, while Puck floats down to earth, as if on a spider's thread. Once he's been crowned with the head of an ass (actually, the head of a seahorse), a mesmerized Bottom marches away at Titania's side, right off the edge of the pool and right into the watery depths. Oberon can't keep to the trees. When he is not darting gracefully under mankind's collective feet, he is hanging from the branches, an upside-down observer of the moonlit follies.
Chambers wants to show us that magical moment in dreams when the laws of science, not to mention society's injunctions, are suspended and the universe is truly turned topsy-turvy. Some of his actors even stand on their heads, and Titania does flips into the pool. It's a potentially fruitful concept, one that seems to combine aspects of "200l," a Chagall painting and a Ziegfeld water ballet.
But does it work? Partially. The one quality most necessary for success -- a shimmering seamlessness -- is the one quality most lacking. Chambers may have demanded too much of this cast. Throughout there is a nagging undertone of tension that comes not from the characters, but from uneasy actors who are asking themselves if, in fact, they are not running the risk of some bodily harm. Their tread on the slippery stage floor is often uncertain, their scampering through the trees just a tad too guarded. Not all minds appear to be concentrated fully on the script.
Avery Brooks is a most sinuously commanding Oberon, but Kathleen Turner's Titania is marred by a definite stridency of voice and movement. Of the mismated lovers, Mary McDonnell has a giddy appeal, and Chambers gets great mileage out of the plucky Christina Moore's diminutive size by having her passed around periodically, like a rag doll. But their male counterparts are somewhat less animated. And something -- is it just the makeup? -- about Charles Janasz's Puck suggests the meanness of a punk rocker. Even the rustics, usually a sure-fire source of merriment, are a letdown. Richard Bauer, for example, plays Flute the bellows-mender in a falsetto that is not so much amusing as it is merely bizarre.
Of course, it can be argued that Flute should have a high-pitched "fluty" voice. But like much of this "Midsummer Night's Dream," the idea works better in principle than in practice. Chambers has obviously come up with an original vision of Shakespeare's play, as a mystical swirl of the primary elements. He's been unable to orchestrate it all on the stage, though. The evening is impressive mainly for the unbounded ambition of its intentions.A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. By William Shakespeare. Directed by David Chambers; sets, Heidi Landesman; costumes, Marie Anne Chiment; lighting, Arden Fingerhut; dances, Kathryn Posin. With Avery Brooks, Kathleen Turner, Charles Janasz, Christina Moore, Thomas A. Hewitt, Robert W. Westenberg, Mary McDonnell, Mark Hammer, Richard Bauer, John Madden Towey. At Arena Stage through Jan. 10.