A dream of a `Dream': Shakespeare as fierce social commentary

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A dazzling production -- to the eye and to the mind -- has joined the repertoire of the Guthrie Theater here, and it's already proving a box office hit at this renowned repertory playhouse. The show is ``A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' staged by Liviu Ciulei, who has been the Guthrie's artistic director since 1980 but is leaving after this season. This is his last work for the Guthrie -- a parting gift that certainly supports the Romanian's brilliant reputation as a creatively disruptive force in world theater. His production's impact lingers long after its stunning visual effects are over, reminding you of how stirring -- how full of unexpected and sometimes perverse meaning -- a classic pla y can become in the hands of an audaciously gifted director.

Ostensibly, Shakespeare's comedy -- set vaguely in ancient Greece -- deals with a cat's cradle of emotional crosscurrents among lovers and the threat these feelings pose to the social equilibrium. A lot of the play takes place in the kingdom of the fairies -- the woods -- where the dream world of the title takes over.

In Athens, Hermia's father has chosen Demetrius as her husband. The trouble is, she loves Lysander, whom her father accuses of ``corrupting'' her imagination. Demetrius, in turn, loves Hermia, while it is Helena who loves him. The ``seething brains'' of lovers, according to Theseus, Duke of Athens, cause turmoil and upset the patriarchal order, and he commands Hermia to submit to her father's wishes.

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But in the opening scene just before this confrontation, Ciulei has accomplished an electrifying transformation of the play's ``traditional'' atmosphere. The Guthrie's thrust stage and bare floor are covered with glaring red plastic. Into this harsh, shimmering world steps Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, who has been captured by Theseus and brought back as his bride.

Played here with a dignified outrage by the black actress Lorraine Toussaint, Hippolyta stands silently as the next startling bit of stage business takes place: Theseus' tailors -- a hostile swarm -- rush on stage, strip off Hippolyta's dark guerrilla-style clothes, and wrap her in white swaths that make a striking contrast against the red set, with Hippolyta's black face proudly punctuating the other hues.

The mix of colors, the ritual show of domineering force, the symbolic re-dressing -- such effects almost instantly establish the world of fierce social commentary which Ciulei wishes to open up. His staging lets audiences trace all kinds of parallels -- the ``racial'' color coding of black and white, the kidnapping of slaves, urban- guerrilla politics, and undoubtedly others.

But the main theme being probed in this staging -- one that Ciulei himself confirmed when I spoke with him later -- is what he calls ``gender relations.'' The staging turns Shakespeare's evocative scenes into a war between the sexes in which male dominance is constantly challenged. From the opening seconds, the show is replete with insistent messages from the director that challenge feminine submission to the patriarchal order. Line after line is read with a special twist, a mocking tone, a coy look, a double take -- all broad devices to make the audience think hard about what the characters are saying and to challenge the social premises behind the lines.

The words themselves are left intact, of course, but a subversive subtext of stage business and special readings runs parallel to the familiar dialogue. Sometimes the staging winks at the audience and says, ``Isn't this line outrageous.'' Sometimes the dark possibilities behind a line are underscored with a scream or a tragic look.

If you think all this sounds too far-fetched for a ``standard'' work like ``Dream,'' you may have something. This is a masterly interpretation, but, inevitably, it has to forfeit the logic of the lines at times. There are two voices speaking to you from the stage -- Shakespeare's and Ciulei's -- and sometimes Ciulei shouts down the Bard. When this happens, everything involved -- actors' readings, set design, busybody stage action -- seems to rebel against the literal meaning of the words as the dramatic

poetry is laid on the Procrustean bed of whatever point the director wants to make.

But these lapses of meaning happen only at the most perverse moments and may be the inevitable price of Ciulei's contrary, masterfully realized vision. Meanwhile, some scenes delightfully underscore the inherent meaning of a line. When artisans rehearse a show for the court, for instance, their boisterous camaraderie is a comic delight without being burlesqued. And when they put on the play -- reasonable fellows reduced to dolts by stage fright -- their slapstick incompetence is a wonder to

behold. It is the immemorial comedy of amateurs-as-actors that has been used throughout theatrical history -- from the Bard to TV's ``The Honeymooners.''

Ciulei also triumphs in that graveyard of directors' hopes, the world of fairies presided over by King Oberon and Queen Titania. In other ``Dream'' productions I've seen, actors have been hoisted into the air on cables or have pussyfooted across the stage -- all in a doomed effort to appear ethereal.

In Ciulei's hands, these moments are magic. He has made stirring use of those often lost elements in modern theater, spectacle and mystery -- and has even employed Philip Glass music to reinforce the effects. Besides the opening scenes, there is the darkened setting where the fairies bewitch Titania in a ``woods'' set using an illuminated cutout moon against a black panel. And there is the haunting dream sequence beneath a huge piece of silvery, undulating, semitransparent cloth, where lurking thoughts and half-admitted desires are enacted or hinted at in the spellbound atmosphere.

Lots of other inventive staging devices are at work: Players are arranged on stage in a kind of diagram of their relationship; sexual byplay and physical aggression point up the harsh realities Ciulei sees behind the most innocent of lines. Oberon and Titania sit at a long, formal dinner table -- the king and queen of fairies discussing otherworldly matters as if at a state dinner.

By the time the Puck of this ``Dream'' enters, it's no surprise to find her a cocky street kid dressed in a sleeveless black leather jacket and baggy black slacks (black has already come to symbolize -- sometimes -- the forces of insurrection). Lynn Chausow gives the famous lines a tough, irreverent, comically adroit delivery that seems exactly right, given the show she's in.

The chemistry among the actors playing the four lovers is strong and splendidly maintained throughout the play. Harriet Harris as Titania skillfully tackles what appears to be a fiendishly tricky role -- a hard-living fairy queen whose all-too-human emotions include some epic horse laughs.

Gary Reineke makes a strong and credible Duke, noble but human. And as his fussbudget Master of the Revels, Richard Oom makes his character a familiar bureaucrat afraid of upsetting his superior.

The show, in fact, owes a great deal to the relatively high quality of the company at the Guthrie, a true repertory theater whose rotating schedule of plays this season also includes ``Cyrano de Bergerac,'' ``Candida,'' ``Execution of Justice,'' and an adaptation of Dickens's novel ``Great Expectations.'' Shakespeare's ``Dream'' will be performed through Oct. 20.

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