Tuesday, October 26, 2021

An Autumnal Tribute to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Anita Louise as Titania, the Fairy Queen

As a long-time theatre buff, I’ve been suffering serious withdrawal symptoms during the pandemic. The few opportunities I’ve had to see actors on stage have been outdoor performances, sometimes awkwardly staged in parking lots. But I did celebrate the end of summer with a Midsummer Night’s Dream in the most magical locale you can imagine. Topanga Canyon’s Theatricum Botanicum was founded in 1973 by the actor Will Geer (Grandpa on TV’s The Waltons). Blacklisted during the McCarthy era, Geer had moved his family to the wilds of Topanga to live off the land. Eventually, their domain became an artist’s colony, and the site of an annual repertory season. The playing area is entirely outdoors, and it’s no wonder that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a standard annual offering. Ensconced in surprisingly comfortable seats in a beautifully woodsy glen, you truly feel as though you too are in the middle of a vast forest, communing with fairy creatures.

 (My pleasure in this particular performance was enhanced by the fact that a neighbor’s son, Steven Taub Gordon, had risen from the ranks of the understudies to play one of show’s quartet of lovers, the charmingly addled Lysander.)

 Back when talkies were something new and exciting, Hollywood’s big studios went out of their way to launch prestige projects, including elaborate screen versions of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays. MGM, for instance, staged a 1936 production of Romeo and Juliet, starring members of the studio’s prized acting stable: John Barrymore as Mercutio, Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, Edna May Oliver as Juliet’s nurse. The two young lovers were played by long-in-the-tooth Leslie Howard (age 43) and Norma Shearer (the 34-year-old wife of producer Irving Thalberg). It’s a well-spoken production, but also one that’s stiff and unconvincing in its portrayal of youthful passion.

 Up until now I’d never managed to see the Warner Bros. contribution to the Shakespeare derby. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which had been staged as an early silent film back in 1905, was filmed in 1935 by Austrian stage and screen director Max Reinhardt, who had just fled rising anti-Semitism in Europe. Reinhardt adored spectacle, and the film spends much of its length on musical interludes, featuring woodland creatures (fairies, nymphs, trolls) frolicking in the moonlight to the lush strains of Felix Mendelssohn. Today all those supernatural beings, photographed in shimmering black & white, can get a bit tiresome, with the oodles of fairies (all with long silvery tresses and filmy gowns) seeming not far removed from the stylized routines that made Busby Berkeley famous. Still, Victor Jory (wearing what looks like a crown of twisted twigs) makes a stalwart Oberon, and Anita Louise is a lovely Titania.

 Among the mortal lovers, perennial juvenile Dick Powell plays Lysander as a ready-for-anything college boy, in a performance that has always been much scorned, even by Powell himself. Opposite him is the very young Olivia De Havilland, making her screen debut. They and the two additional star-crossed lovers, Ross Alexander and Jean Muir, are pretty silly, in roles that always require a certain amount of silliness.

 Naturally, it’s the most earth-bound characters who come out best, particularly James Cagney as Bottom the Weaver and the wide-mouthed Joe E. Brown as Flute, who must don a dress to play opposite Bottom in the world’s wackiest performance of the tragic “Pyramus and Thisbe.” Young Mickey Rooney’s antic Puck sounds like a good idea: he was a small, energetic fifteen-year-old who was talented and ready for anything. But Rooney’s hyperactive performance should only be sampled in small doses. After seeing it, you’ll be ready for a Midsummer Night’s snooze.



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