Every element is available to make The New Orleans’ Shakespeare Festival at Tulane’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” a magical evening of theater.
If only director Clare Moncrief employed those elements to that end.
Because, for all its technical acumen, this “Midsummer” is an incoherent explosion of tricks and effects that might only hold together because of audiences’ familiarity with the oft-done text.
It is unlikely you will see the resources used to tell this version of Shakespeare’s tale of love and confusion in an enchanted forest available to any other nonmusical production in town.
It boasts projections by Jane Cassidy to create sylvan locations, a giant scrim of a set designed by Leah Farrelly to look like a series of scrolls, an endless array of costumes by Jennifer Gillette that harkens back to at least three time periods, and an aural landscape by Martin Sachs that never stops playing music or indicating magic.
There are aerialist routines by Michael Scott (who ably does some of his own stunts in the more-or-less created role of Willow), choreography for a group of sprites and wood nymphs, and even video images of silhouetted dancers swaying to a modern version of “Begin the Beguine.”
Notice what I haven’t spoken of yet?
The play itself. Because very little of the impressive theatrical apparatus advances the story or illuminates the text. The effects seem done for their own sake, the idea of a concept production rather than thing itself.
After a while, technical indulgence and a cast delivery that can best be described as stentorian overwhelm the senses and create a “Midsummer” that leaves the viewer numb and puzzled.
The cast, caught in a lumbering, loud and gauche production, resorts to shouting their roles to overcome the created world around them. It deadens the text and leaves competent actors struggling to tell the story of lovers rejected and reunited.
One role in particular demonstrates the problem with Moncrief’s reliance on fireworks.
The part of Nick Bottom, the overly enthusiastic ham actor who transforms into an ass, is a tricky one. The character contains the risk of turning into merely an insufferable glory hound, hellbent on stealing the spotlight.
So, it is crucial to make him an irrepressible dreamer whose enthusiasms ingratiate him to all who come into his company.
Unfortunately, actor Liam Kraus’ Bottom is singularly preening, pushy and self-absorbed, and it makes us wish one of his attendant faeries would wallop him for his rudeness.
One suspects that the director’s overall throttled approach led to Kraus’ interpretation, because it feels as if his performance is competing with the bells and whistles around him.
It’s not just Kraus.
Much of the cast falls into the same trap with the louder more abrasive natures of the characters they are playing coming to the forefront, and this has the unfortunate effect of reducing the acting to a solitary shrill note.
Still, there are pleasures in which a viewer can revel.
I enjoyed Ruby Lou Smith’s turn as the long-suffering Helena. Of all the lovers, she was consistently the one listening and reacting to the madness around her.
As Puck, Clint Johnson speaks the language with beauty and variety. Developing a nice rapport with the audience, he occasionally restores warmth to the surprisingly chilly proceedings.
Brendan Bowen brings can-do charm and an amiable goofiness as Tom Snout. His portrayal of the character Wall inside the play within the play is spot on.
He does not comment on playing a wall; he simply plays it.
And Alex Ates and Jessica Podewell almost save the evening in their relatively slender roles of Francis Flute and Peter Quince respectively.
Transforming a part that could turn into the single joke of a boy playing a girl, Ates infuses it with an earnest eager-to-please energy. And in a cross-gender piece of casting, Podewell creates a Quince who is a star-struck bundle of nerves.
But these graces notes ultimately end up only pointing out the show that eluded the collaborators.
As the projected images accumulate, the acrobatic spins multiply and the costume changes pile up, it becomes abundantly clear director Moncrief had the resources necessary to execute her vision of The Bard’s most celebrated comedy.
I am just not sure what that vision was.
Jim Fitzmorris writes about theater. He can be reached at email@example.com.