Friday, April 25, 2014

A Midsummer Night's Dream


t looks like we will shortly have all ten of the little darlings cast for my new reality show, American Idyll which will be the surprise hit of the next television season. Precocious little girls studying with a great star like myself to become the new millennium's Shirley Temple- Who could ask for anything more? I had a meeting today with my major artistic staff. Bob Mackie is doing the costumes and has been busy in his atelier sewing the most darling little gold lame sheaths for their first production number. I, of course, will be staging and choreographing the musical extravaganzas that will end each episode. Normy, my darling husband, is responsible for choosing the musical selections. He has the most extraordinary ideas for a stair tap routine to Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

Madame Rose, my publicist, has mapped out a fabulous campaign which will begin soon in TV Guide. We have a large photomontage of Shirley Temple Black in her role as Chief of Protocol and Ambassador to Ghana with the caption 'Stop Calling Me Shirley!' and a subtitle 'Who will gain the crown instead?' I think it's brilliant and sure to be an attention grabber. Ania, the Polish dramaturg I've hired for textual analysis of the material, has been most useful. She's translated the campaign into Polish, French, Serbo-Croatian and Swahili for the international market. I'm sure we'll make ratings history in Lesotho. She's also set a number of the great Shirley Temple numbers into Shakespearean sonnet form to make them easier to declaim - the poetry she's brought to Animal Crackers in My Soup is absolutely exquisite.

I had iambic pentameter absolutely dancing in my brain, along with a plethora of litotes and synecdoche so I decided that a little Shakespeare on film might be just the thing. Off I went to the home theater, where I had to uncover my favorite Ottoman settee from underneath sheet music of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas (Normy's new music room isn't quite finished. The pipe organ has yet to be installed and there's still a lot of Patrick, the cat's lifetime supply of Meow Mix all over the floor). Looking through the film collection, I found a DVD of Michael Hoffman's 1999 adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream and popped that in for a look.

For those of you unfamiliar with the bard, A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comic romp through the palaces and groves of classical Athens, involving folk both human and preternatural in a series of interlocking plots that deal with the follies and foibles of life and love. In one of the first instances of multilayered plotting, four different stories intertwine with each other, all colliding one summer evening in the woods. In the first plot, Theseus, Duke of Athens (David Straithairn), prepares to marry Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (Sophie Marceau) with all the pomp and circumstance of the court. In the second, the nobleman Egeus (Bernard Hill) is attempting to wed his daughter Hermia (Anna Friel) to Demetrius (Christian Bale) when she prefers Lysander (Dominic West). Demetrius is, in turn, desired by Hermia's best friend, Helena (Calista Flockhart) and soon all four young lovers are fleeing the palace for the woods. In plot three, Bottom, the Weaver (Kevin Kline) and his friends are attempting to put together a play with which to entertain the ducal court at the wedding feast. Unfortunately none of these rude mechanicals has much in the way of theatrical talent. Lastly, the fairies that dwell in the woods are in an uproar as their king, Oberon (Rupert Everett) and queen, Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer) are feuding. The mischievous Puck (Stanley Tucci), Oberon's henchman, complicates things by interfering in the lives of the young lovers and transforming poor Bottom into more of an ass than usual in attempting to embarrass poor Titania.

Michael Hoffman, the Hollywood journeyman behind such uninspired entertainments as One Fine Day and The Emperor's Club, is a competent stylist and gives the film a look and a sheen. He's edited the text down to keep the film moving and it's never boring. For reasons known only to him and his production team, he decided to set his story not in classical Greece, but in Edwardian era Italy. He dwells lovingly on Tuscan landscapes and cypress trees and fields of flowers in his opening and closing sequences, but cuts to obvious studio sets for the actual heart of the film when all the major characters are lost in the wood at night. It's a bit of an odd juxtaposition and the film never completely recovers from it.

The Edwardian setting allows costumer Gabriella Pescucci and production designer Luciana Arrighi to let their imaginations run riot and there's lots of gorgeous linen shirtwaists and long skirts, cricketing flannels, boater hats, and high collars to be seen. The cast look luscious and seem to be having a good time with the period, even if they are occasionally made to do silly things with turn of the century bicycles. The non-human fairies seem to take their look from classical frescoes with Tucci got up to look like a faun and Everett and Pfeiffer like refugees from a lesser Alma-Tadema painting.

Any Shakespeare adaptation eventually lives or dies on the quality of its performers and Hoffman has been fairly fortunate in his casting. Most of his actors are up to their part and even those roles which smell of stunt casting (Calista Flockhart, for instance) are still filled with classically trained actors who can handle the verse. The hands down winner in terms of performance is Kevin Kline as Bottom who takes his somewhat clichéd role and makes him into a soulful dreamer, wanting and needing something more than life has given him. He doesn't go for the low comedy or for the easy laugh, but rather for something much more human and universal. Some of this is accomplished through some non-Shakespeare interpolations such as the brief appearance of Mrs. Bottom, but most of it comes from Kline's major talent. Almost his equal is Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania, who holds her own in her scenes with Kline and brings some real chemistry to her unlikely love affair. She's also absolutely gorgeous in her fairy finery. Rupert Everett and Stanley Tucci, while comfortable with their roles, seem a bit uninspired and Tucci is not going to make anyone forget the brilliant young Mickey Rooney in the 1935 Max Reinhardt film.

The four young lovers are all personable, and, in the case of Christian Bale and Dominic West, very good in somewhat nothing parts. That's really not the fault of the film but of the original play which doesn't do too much to make the star crossed lovers much more than plot devices. The eclectic mix of actors in the roles of the supporting mechanicals such as Sam Rockwell and Gregory Jbara have a lot of fun, but not a lot of screen time. The weakest link is Sophie Marceau who, with her accent, just can't get her voice around the verse. She looks great though and her role has been sliced to little more than a walk on.

All and all, the film is pleasant, if not terribly brilliant, and serves as a good introduction to the play, if not a definitive version. The DVD is a pretty bare bones release with a good sound and picture transfer in widescreen but little in the way of extras.

Wine pouring in goblets. Wine pouring on heads. Running through woods. Bicycling through woods. Gratuitous mud catfight. Naked fairies. Naked Dominic West. Naked Christian Bale. No naked David Straithairn. Bad play production. Pantomime Lion. Body glitter. Bed blessings.

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