By the time William Shakespeare got around to writing A Midsummer Night's Dream, recorded Western theater had been packing 'em in for about 20 centuries. That's to say that stories about romantic love (Midsummer's case in point) had been rewritten, overwritten and out-written scores of times over—and Bill knew it. His heroes Hermia and Lysander may have been all giggly amid the illicitness of their relationship, but they were still just two among thousands of star-struck characters trying to make a go of stuff against theater history's sometimes insurmountable odds.
The new wrinkle: Set the play in this cute wooded fairyland next to an ancient Athenian court of law, with a bunch of nymphs and sprites nymphing and spriting as only they can nymph and sprite and where nothing is as it seems (that's how things feel when you're in love). If you're La Jolla Playhouse, you opt for a Victorian sitting room in place of the court to punctuate the stuffiness among the human hierarchy, and then you let your creatives go postal as the set and music carry the story. Midsummer is a well-constructed and pleasant little play in any case—but mark me, the Playhouse's special effects are like nothing you've ever seen.
In fact, some might think they overstate the action in this piece about the folly of arranged marriage. Scene designer Neil Patel worked triple-time to capture the upside-downness of it all (a parlor-grand piano turned on its ear and suspended in midair, ingeniously inverted chandeliers in place of trees, a ceilingmounted working fireplace), and Basil Twist's puppet designs are an excellent complement to the fairies' acrobatics and aerial sleight of hand. It's all positively lovely to look at, but its brilliance does tend to take on a separate life as the simple story unfolds. The state liness can be a bit much against the belly-laughs Bill was aiming for.
But director Christopher Ashley has an excellent Hermia in Amelia Campbell, whose jowly voice lends authenticity to the character's independent streak. Tim Hopper's Lysander has a dutiful quality about him that makes you wonder how he and Hermia would fare as man and wife (I don't hold much hope). Christopher Douglas Reed is priceless as Flute in the “Pyramus and Thisbe” segment, Bill's tongue-in-cheek jab at starcrossed lovers.
And take note of Mark Bennett's score as culled from the music of Felix Mendelssohn. The tunes masterfully straddle the real and the fanciful in a very big show about romantic love and how its intended targets so often miss (and rediscover) the mark.
This review is based on the opening-night production of July 27. A Midsummer Night's Dream runs through Aug. 22 at La Jolla Playhouse's Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive. $31-$66. lajollaplayhouse.com. Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.