Does Shakespeare need a digital makeover to stay relevant and entertaining?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare. Directed by Casey Wilder Mott. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema.
By Peg Aloi
Think about your average day. You wake, you dress, you eat, you work, you play, you sleep and then, with any luck, you dream. But, if you’re reading this on your laptop or your tablet or your phone, let me hazard a guess. Like me, the world of your dreams is inhabited by the mundane digital content you consume for way too many hours of the day. All this low-level electronic stimulation affects how our brains process, create, and blow off steam. Do you sometimes dream about smart phones or social media? Do memes inspired by movies or streaming TV creep into your nocturnal imaginings? They sure do. Electronic emissions are ubiquitous in modern life — they have crept into our most private thoughts, crawled deep within our psyches. Kind of a sad thought, isn’t it?
If you’ve read your Shakespeare, you know the Bard was very interested in dreams. Dreams fill his plays, distributed among the comedies, the tragedies, and the romances. What would the great dramatist have made of our modern world, where our heads are bent over chunks of vibrating metal and plastic day and night, at time when many habitual book and theater lovers have eschewed literature for video and audio entertainment?
Filmmaker Casey Wilder Mott may have considered some of these ideas in his bold and brash feature debut A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mott has re-imagined one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays, suffusing the text with the digital trappings of our weary, wonderful age. Some of Mott’s set pieces come off as a bit forced at times, but there is a delirious glitter about this film — it has the quality of attending a rave, or at least a fairly interesting party.
Perhaps you’re already familiar with the plot, but if not, it’s a standard Shakespeare comedy containing plenty of mistaken identity subplots, and is essentially a story of a parallel world where fairies exist. These fairies take delight in manipulating humans for their own entertainment, sowing chaos in their wake. I saw two stunningly good stage productions of this play (one by the Hartford Stage Company and one by the Royal Shakespeare Company) that took advantage of the play’s carefully-structured scenes to double-cast the actors who play Theseus and Hippolyta (a middle-aged aristocratic couple about to marry),and Oberon and Titania (the King and Queen of the Fairies). Alas, Mott chose not to do this, and overall the casting, with one or two exceptions, is fairly uninspired. I did enjoy the energetic Fran Kranz as Bottom. He opens the film within a trippy, techno-pagan sequence that establishes Mott’s hallucinogenic framework: this is a ‘reality’ shot through with imagery, sound, and sensory stimulation, to the point that the divide between wakefulness and dreams feels very fluid, dizzily confusing, and rather delightful (in small doses).
In this contemporary retelling, Theseus is a high-powered Hollywood producer (played by the always-interesting Ted Levine) with an aloof trophy bride (Boardwalk Empire’s Paz de la Huerta). They are having pre-marital difficulties. Oberon and Titania are similarly vexed with domestic strife; they are played by two relative Hollywood outsiders: slam poet Saul Williams and quirky psych-folk singer Mia Doi Todd. The casting encourages the use of a great deal of original music in the fairy world scenes: sometimes this works very nicely, and sometimes it doesn’t. Theseus’ daughter Hermia (Rachael Leigh Cook) is portrayed as a young starlet who is being pushed into marrying Demetrius (Finn Wittrock of La La Land and American Horror Story), a man she doesn’t love. Meanwhile, her lover Lysander (The Big Short’s Hamish Linklater) urges her to elope with him. Demetrius is indifferent to Hermia; Helena (American Horror Story’s Lily Rabe) is madly in love with Demetrius.Director Casey Wilder Mott's debut is admirable in its widely-gyrating invention, its sheer audacity.Click To Tweet
If it feels a bit like a bedroom farce by way of Athens, well, yes, there is some confusion at first about who’s with who. Shakespeare stirs the pot naughtily to make the plot contortions more confusing as the play progresses. Theseus orders the fairy Puck (aka Robin Goodfellow, played by Ghost Wars’ Avan Jogia) to toy with Titania, and with the young lovers as well, and the ensuing antics befuddle everyone involved. Meanwhile a troupe of players prepares a play to be performed at the (inevitable) triple wedding.
Many of the film’s moments contain some very clever and innovative tropes to update the action (penned during the Elizabethan era) to our mad modern world, and there’s some fairly clever recontextualizing of poetic dialogue (achieved, at times, by whittling the dialogue down to a few words). But I still found myself underwhelmed. I wanted more magic and less gimmickry. Two iconic scenes are treated as if Mott was in a competition for supplying the most outrageous (and cringe-inducing) interpretation possible.
The actors mostly fare well, though Puck’s persona as a cute, neo-hippie, DJ-artist-influencer often falls flat and Mina Doi Todd, though she looks lovely and sings beautifully, often seems to go through the motions in terms of acting (to be fair, some of what she’s asked to do is a bit silly). The settings and costumes are eclectic and thrilling, a sumptuous mix-and-match of visual styles and cultural influences. Still, in the end, I’d have been happier with a simpler mise-en-scene that let us hear the play’s humor, poetry, and dramatic pathos. Call me old-fashioned: Shakespeare doesn’t need a digital makeover to stay relevant and entertaining. This dream tired me out. Still, Mott’s debut is admirable in its widely-gyrating invention, its sheer audacity; I will be watching to see where this filmmaker journeys next.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.