Rating: 1.5 stars
The works of William Shakespeare, like those of no other playwright, have been squeezed and stretched into myriad different shapes, with directors mounting productions of the Bard’s canon in almost every time period, social context and physical setting you can imagine. It’s a testament to the plays’ elasticity that sometimes the craziest concepts work surprisingly well, offering fresh insights into well-thumbed material.
The feature debut of Casey Wilder Mott, a version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that transplants this comedy of mismatched lovers from ancient Athens to contemporary La La Land is not one of those success stories.
To be clear, some of Mott’s notions sound kind of cute. Of the four lovers around whom this story revolves, Hermia (Rachael Leigh Cook) is a successful movie star; her bookish, bespectacled best friend, Helena (Lily Rabe), is a struggling screenwriter. The two rivals for the affection of Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius, are reimagined, respectively, as a hipster-ish celebrity photographer (Hamish Linklater) and a slick talent agent (Finn Wittrock). The buffoonish Bottom (Fran Kranz) and his band of inept friends? They’re a cadre of student filmmakers at the conservatory of the AFI (here standing for “Athens Film Institute”). It’s all really quite clever.
Too clever for its own good, as it turns out.
The entire plot of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is based on confusion. When the fairy Puck (played by a Johnny Depp-ish Avan Jogia as a stoned-out surfer) tries to cast a spell that will make Demetrius fall in love again with his ex, Helena — freeing Hermia and Lysander to be together — he mucks everything up, causing more trouble than he has been tasked with fixing.
But rather than clarifying this already complicated dynamic, or shedding light on the play’s themes of infatuation and estrangement, Mott’s overly eccentric staging primarily draws attention to itself, only confusing what is an already knotty ball of interconnected threads. It is also a really bad idea to take Bottom’s magical transformation into an ass, or donkey, as something more literal, replacing the burro’s ears that the character traditionally wears with a naked human derriere where his face should be.
As for the poetry of Shakespeare’s language, that remains mostly intact, although Mott can’t refrain from tossing in bits and pieces from other plays that have nothing to do with anything (including, bizarrely, “Henry VI, Part II”). Puns based on famous lines from “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” — “To be or not to be” and “Out, damned spot” — also pop up, inducing groans. The editing, which chops up dialogue willy-nilly — turning the script into a kind of word salad at times — goes down more like a funny-tasting smoothie than a smart mash-up of new and old.
Only Saul Williams, as the fairy-king Oberon, seems to know his way around Shakespeare’s blank verse. The sonorous-voiced star of “Slam,” the 1998 celebration of street poetry, is a joy to listen to.
Generally speaking, however, this “Midsummer” is a chore. As Aaron Posner’s brilliant 2016 staging of the play at the Folger Theatre proved, it is possible to breath new life into an old warhorse, but this version feels like a flogging a dead horse.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains sensuality, nudity, drug use and brief strong language. 104 minutes.