Another Midsummer Night

Goodman Theatre

If we shadows have offended, . . .

Gentles do not reprehend:

If you pardon, we will mend . . .

–Puck, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

One reason the Goodman Theatre likes to end with a musical each year, I think, is that an upbeat crowd pleaser can soothe memories of more challenging fare earlier in the season. This strategy is apparent in Another Midsummer Night, the fluffy finale to a season that began with Peter Sellars’s controversial staging of The Merchant of Venice. Both productions are updated rethinkings of Shakespearean masterpieces; in both, video is a key component–a medium that distorts and trivializes the lives it records, reducing complex emotions to small-scale images.

But in other ways the banal, visually snazzy Another Midsummer Night is the polar opposite of Sellars’s somber, thoughtful Merchant, epitomizing the glib TV sensibility Sellars’s staging critiqued. Seeking to pander rather than provoke, it’s like a marketing director’s paraphrase of Puck’s famous apologia: if our artists did offend, please renew and we will mend.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a lightweight musical in the summer, of course; but the similar premises and contrasting results of Goodman’s first and last shows this season are too pointed to ignore. Furthermore, the promise of a new work by composer Jeffrey Lunden, librettist Arthur Perlman, and director Michael Maggio–the team responsible for Goodman’s sublime Wings a couple of seasons back–raises expectations so high that the shallow results can’t help but disappoint. Wings, a musical based on Arthur Kopit’s drama about a stroke victim, was an exquisite, intimate view of a paralyzed woman’s inner life; but inner life is exactly what’s missing from the characters in Another Midsummer Night. Instead of dramatizing inexpressible feelings, as they did so skillfully in Wings, Lunden and Perlman churn out musical pastiche, pedestrian lyrics, formulaic situations, and cheap-shot spoofs–including a parody of performance artists that has about as much bite and credibility as the hokey hippies on 60s series like The Beverly Hillbillies.

Bringing together creatures of Celtic mythology with modern characters, Another Midsummer Night sheds no new light on either world. Its rendition of Oberon, Titania, and Puck hews to the antiquated interpretations that modern Shakespearean practice has so vividly improved upon. Oberon and Titania, played with lustrous operatic voices and stilted poses by Nick Wyman and Mary Ernster, are garbed in regal 18th-century dress (complete with towering white wigs) to match their musical motifs, which imitate the operas of Handel and Gluck. Puck, meanwhile, is your classic flying fairy-goblin, played by the usually reliable Jim Corti with a mischievous feyness that turns into an increasingly irritating imitation of Danny Kaye at his most self-consciously cute. Choreographer Danny Herman’s imaginative aerial acrobatics, however, are a delight, gracefully executed by Corti and Jennifer Rosin and Lisa Menninger as his fellow fairies, Cobweb and Peaseblossom.

Replacing Shakespeare’s bickering lovers are two mismatched contemporary couples who wander into the fairies’ mischievous magic: Dan, a doctor, and his fiancee, Heather; Helen, the lawyer whom Dan really loves; and Larry, a neurotic actor who loves Heather from a distance. “Very Seinfeld-esque, frankly,” admits Lunden in a Goodman promotional newsletter. These TV-derived characters don’t have personalities–just attitudes. They embody urban anxiety in a recognizable and occasionally amusing way; but they’re two-dimensional devices, not people an audience can care about, so their romantic destinies are completely devoid of interest–especially in the supple-voiced but bland performances of Jim Walton, Kathleen Rowe McAllen, Jessica Molaskey, and Michael Rupert. Their songs are written in a peppy, plastic pop idiom that recalls the Stephen Sondheim of Company (except he was making fun of the style) and the Burt Bacharach of Promises, Promises (he wasn’t). Hardly contemporary–Lunden has many gifts as a composer, but hipness isn’t one of them; and Perlman’s cliched lyrics make the characters less and less likable with every song.

Bringing the two groups together is Hollis Resnik as performance artist Nicki Patos, who uses synthesizer and video for her “post-feminist, post-postmodern, neoDadaist” extravaganza “A Midsummer Matrix,” a midnight event in the park that inadvertently summons the fairies from 1595 to the present. Maggio has coached Resnik into a repeat of the brittle-bimbo stereotype she played in his A Little Night Music on the same stage last summer: she mugs and moues her way through this stupid role with a bravura abandon that’s magnified by Catherine Zuber’s outrageous costumes for her. When Titania plots revenge on Oberon for making her fall in love with the human-donkey Bottom 400 years ago, Nicki is her tool: banished into video cyberspace–transformed literally into a talking head–Nicki becomes the love object of the enchanted king, who woos her in a pathetically obvious Philip Glass/Laurie Anderson parody called “Transform-ed.”

Another Midsummer Night may very well be the summer hit Goodman is banking on–the eye-catching, simpleminded show that will calm the bored bourgeoisie who walked out on The Merchant of Venice last fall. It boasts terrific multimedia technology, as Linda Buchanan’s sprawling forest set becomes a lush landscape for the metamorphic video designs of Christopher C. Derfler. It’s an easy show to watch and listen to; if there are no songs that win your heart or stick in your mind, there aren’t any obvious clunkers either. And it has a few solid laughs, including the sight of the bewitched, bothered, and bewigged Oberon impatiently channel surfing to catch sight of his love, pushing Titania out of his TV sight line; the actors’ regal stiffness in contrast to the rapidly changing video images makes the scene even funnier. But there’s something depressing about seeing two of English drama’s most fanciful figures reduced to one more couple feuding over the remote control.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Y. Exit.