By MARK BLANKENSHIP
As she was preparing to direct her production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which is currently inaugurating the new Brooklyn home of Theatre for a New Audience, Julie Taymor had to decide what to make of the magic.
"I felt if I was going to do this play, there were two nuts that had to be cracked," she says. "One was, 'How do you approach the fairies?' and the other was, really, 'Who is Puck?'"
Her answers give the production its wild energy. Naturally, the show still features the human characters---including four Athenians who flee to the forest on various romantic pursuits and a group of "rude mechanicals" who are rehearsing a play they'll present to the court---but there's no question that fairies control the stage. As Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen, try to get the upper hand on each other, and as Puck, Oberon's jester, darts around making havoc, we're constantly confronted by magic. Actors descend from the ceiling, giant pieces of fabric suggest everything from trees to the sky, and the light turns inky blue, as though sleep itself were taking over the room.
And with the exception of Puck, Oberon, and Titania, all the fairies are played by children. For Taymor, these young people are a key to her production. "When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the fairy world, I told Jeffrey [Horowitz, TFANA's artistic director] that I'd come to the idea of having a hundred children," she says. "And he laughed. Obviously we couldn't even fit a hundred children on that stage. But I think what he understood was this notion of utter anarchy that you create with children---the buzzing, fecund nature world."
That energy creates tension that resonates with Shakespeare's plot: Just as we try to control the wildness of children, society tries to control the play's lovers by telling them whom to marry. When they escape to the forest---the realm of the fairies ---they are free to act on impulse, the way children do.
Which leads to Taymor's second question: If Oberon (David Harewood) and Titania (Tina Benko) are essentially the parents in the forest, then who is Puck? "I was very interested in anarchy and control with this group, with Puck being the ultimate anarchist and enjoying when things get f**ked up," Taymor says.
When Puck teases the mechanicals, he's obviously the leader of the naughty pack, but then again, he's occasionally a follower. He happily complies, for instance, when Oberon commands him to collect a magical flower that will enchant Titania.
That points to Puck's ambiguous, shifting nature, which defines the character in this production.
For one thing, Puck is played by the renowned British actress Kathryn Hunter. As both a woman and a person in her 50s, she is hardly the expected version of the character. "You can't really say 'he' or 'she' because Kathryn is a composite," Taymor says. "She's equally male-female, not only in what she wears, but also in her presence."
Hunter agrees, saying, "Julie and I both felt early on that it's sort of a genderless thing. He's genderless, ageless. He could be 10 or 100 years old."
The genderless quality is suggested by Hunter's rumpled suit, her white face makeup, and her short, crimson hair. But gender theories and costume pieces are not a performance. As Hunter says, "On a more practical level, you have to ask, 'How does Puck move?' I always go to the text to get the clues, and he---he, she, it---is a shapeshifter that can change himself into a crabapple or a stool or a horse or whatever. I tried to find a body that changes its shape. Legs and arms go here and there, and that's literally an expression of freedom that he's not one thing. He's not tied to one identity."
Hunter also imbues the character with joy and love. When Oberon summons Puck, for instance, Hunter jumps into Harewood's arms, and she radiates with innocent glee as she pranks the lovers, the mechanicals, and everyone else. "They're essentially good spirits, these fairies," she says. "So I figure that the chaos that Puck causes is in a way motivated by the idea that you turn things upside down and inside out in order to see more clearly."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Es Devlin