The beauty of William Shakespeare’s plays is their malleability to interpretation. Even the highest of the literati recognize that Shakespeare wrote for the multitudes, not just high class or lower born. As such, his plays contain a timeliness, enabling them to be reconstituted in a variety of forms. In 1996, Baz Luhrmann gave us the feverish Romeo + Juliet, translating the city of Verona and its citizens to the hybrid streets of Miami, Florida, Mexico City, Mexico, and Boca del Rio, Veracruz; 1999 saw director Julie Taymor recreate the incredible violence of Titus Andronicius in an experimental format wherein the play is presented as a fantastical adventure; and there’s Joss Whedon transforming Messina, Italy, to fit within the bounds of his Santa Monica, California, home for his quiet interpretation of Much Ado About Nothing. Putting his own spin on one of Shakespeare’s earliest works, writer/director Casey Wilder Mott (producer of Hot Summer Nights) reimagines A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a tale of love-lost and love-regained, in a strictly modern view, updating not just the look of the beloved play, but the characters themselves. Though the idea itself is nothing new, Mott’s execution in adapting Midsummer is sublime, quite nearly guaranteeing giggles from all who observe it.
In the city of Athens, two sets of lovers do reside: one deeply devoted (Rachel Leigh Cook and Hamish Linklater as Hermia and Lysander) and the other quarrelous (Lily Rabe and Finn Wittrock as Helena and Demetrius). Hermia’s father Egeus (Alan Blumenfeld) disapproves of her suitor, demanding instead that Demetrius be the one to marry her – a decision supported by Theseus (Ted Levine), the Duke of Athens. Helena, herself enamored with Demetrius, notifies him of the lovers’ escape, hoping it would bring the two closer together. Instead, the two follow the lovers into the woods outside Athens, one hopes to stop the wedding, while the other hopes to stop the one hoping to stop the wedding. Unknowingly, the sets of lovers find themselves players in a game of revenge between Oberon (Saul Williams) – King of the Fairies – and his obstinate wife Titania (Mia Doi Todd). Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, what begins as a convoluted mess of intentions, reveals itself by resolute end to be a simple matter of the heart.
There’s a playfulness that pervades Mott’s adaptation. The infamous “Hollywood” sign now reads “Athens,” the cast/characters are introduced via a musical montage featuring a remix of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Mactmusick, characters off-handedly incorporate lines from other Shakespearian productions, voice-assistant “Siri” is now “Sira,” and the cast gives not an inch toward incredulity, no matter how ridiculous their situation becomes. Each of these choices, particularly as they play out on screen, demonstrate a keen understanding of the source material and provide a distinct voice presenting a specific vision. In one particularly interesting choice, the traditional roles of lords and ladies are replaced with positions in the film industry, a place with its own rules and hierarchy. Theseus is the head of a studio; Hermia is a famous actress whose work includes Pulp Fiction, Dirty Dancing, and Pretty Woman knock-offs; Helena is a screenwriter; Demetrius is an agent; and Lysander is a photographer. Each character transitions to modernity with ease as many look upon these roles as comparable royalty.
Where the adaptation becomes particularly interesting is in the creation of Oberon, Titania, and the other fairies. These are characters not introduced until Act II and their individual style is in great contrast to the Athenians. Where jeans, jackets, and skirts adorn the fleeing couples, the fairies appear more natural, more tribal with paints marking their faces, an array of jewels and rings embellishing their forms, and their attire being less binding. While the Athenians may bear the weight of the narrative, it’s the fairies who carry it forward to its conclusion. As such, the casting needs to be foolproof and casting poet, musician, writer, and actor Saul Williams as Oberon fits this perfectly. Garnished with the trappings of Oberon, Williams’s natural gravitas elevates the characterization beyond mere mischief-maker and conveys a character of enormous depth. For many, fans of this particular play especially, it’s the prankster Puck – played with equal precision by Avan Jogia (The Year of Spectacular Men) – who’s granted the most remembrance, but this performance by Williams is bound to change that.
Given the timeless nature of Shakespeare’s works, it would seem easy for any screenwriter to merely transpose the words for the silver screen, but what Mott’s composed is far more than that. It’s a love-letter to Shakespeare, richly filled with references to other works and presented by actors more than capable of reciting the Bard’s words. None of them – not the Athenians, not the fairies, nor the third group of artists who offer up the most comedy in the film – collapse under the weight of the original playwright’s cadence. Instead, each rises to the occasion, creating lasting interpretations on the characters. It’s not just the approach or the performances but the entire feel of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which beautifully captures the inherent chaotic spirit of love and the way it colors our view of the world. And the way audiences will view Midsummer is undeniably deserving of felicitations, especially when considering Mott’s presentation of Puck’s finale monologue, a speech that encapsulates all that Midsummer seeks to explore and expose. In concept and execution, it reframes Mott’s editorial approach and narrative presentation that may initially seem wildly ill-formed as something far more deliberate and ingenious.
One could say that all’s well that ends well, but that’s a story for another time.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
To find a location near you screening A Midsummer Night’s Dream, head to their official website for dates and details.