Saturday, January 04, 2014

Theater with Children: A Midsummer Night's Dream

Photo: Gerry Goodstein

When I was a kid, my parents took my sister and me to a lot of theater in our hometown of Pittsburgh, which has a much stronger arts scene than I think most people assume. My folks subscribed (and still do) to Pittsburgh Public Theater, and sometimes took us to summer stock productions under a huge tent at Hartwood Acres. They frequently took us to shows at Carnegie-Mellon University, which had consistently excellent offerings (and has sent about a gazillion starry-eyed graduates to New York over the years). They also took us, for a couple of years, to a great Shakespeare festival. Now sadly defunct, the Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival operated, at least through the late 1980s, out of the lovely little Stephen Foster Memorial Theatre on the University of Pittsburgh campus.

A few days before we'd attend a particular Shakespeare play, my mother would haul the dark gray, heavily inked copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare that she had purchased as a college student out from the study and read through it. Then, over dinner or in the car en route to the show, she'd tell us a chatty, child-friendly synopsis of what we were about to see: "Lear was a king, and he had three daughters. Can you guess, just by hearing their names, which one we are supposed to like best?" or, "Wait until you see what an awful man Iago is. Just a terrible guy. Here's what he does to Othello." Her synopses were typically bookended with impassioned reminders that we were not going to be able to understand everything the characters said because they spoke in an older form of English, but that we shouldn't worry about that. Her approach didn't always work (I clearly remember my dad shushing me with growing irritation while I squirmed my way through Richard III, a play I have grown to appreciate but still really don't love), but it helped more often than it didn't. At the very least, whether we connected with the play or not, my sister and I always had some inkling of what the hell was going on at any given time.

I haven't thought much about my mom's approach to Shakespeare for kids in a long time, not only because I, like lots of people, often take what my folks do and have done for granted, but also because, until recently, it just hadn't felt like the right time to introduce either of my kids to Shakespeare. My daughter is ten and my son is six, and thus neither is really an ideal spectator for, like, the five-hour adaptation of the Roman Tragedies that blew my mind at BAM in 2012, or Alan Cumming's creepy one-man Macbeth last season.

But then, a few months back, Theater for a New Audience announced that they were opening a brand new theater in Brooklyn, and inaugurating it with a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream! Directed by Julie Taymor! With special low low prices for students! And yea verily, I started wondering whether I should take my ten-year-old to this delightful Shakespearean rom-com, which, I figured, would have enough shiny Taymor touches to keep her occupied if, in fact, the foolish mortals bored her outright. When mom mentioned the same production as one we might try taking my daughter to, I figured the time was indeed right, and got tickets for New Year's Day.

Taking my daughter to her first Shakespeare play on the first of the year seemed like a great idea in October. After all, what else do we ever do on New Year's Day but lie around complaining about how fat and hung-over we are (ok, that applies to me, but not to my daughter just yet)? Tickets for me, her, and my parents secured, I set about doing what my mom did for me--sort of: I ordered a graphic novel of A Midsummer Night's Dream written in contemporary English, and tossed it at my daughter once it arrived.

That didn't go over so well. My kid is way more discriminating than I am when it comes to graphic novels, and this one happened to bite serious wang, even by my estimation. She couldn't even pretend to be interested, so I did what any desperate parent does when her kids don't respond exactly the way she wants them to: I tisked in frustration, and then printed out some pages from Wikipedia that I gave to her instead. I know, I know, I should know better: it went over even worse than the fugly comic book did.

The day of the performance had me really worried: Not only was I indeed hung-over and feeling exceptionally rotund, but my daughter was perfectly content to hang out all afternoon with her friends on a day that was, after all, her very last of winter vacation. As I extracted her from her neighbors, all of whom were still in their pajamas, I chastised myself: What the hell was I thinking?

But then we met my parents at their place en route to the theater, and my mother greeted her granddaughter at the door with a page-long synopsis that she had written out herself, in the same chatty, approachable language she used to use when recounting plots for us: "I guess Puck isn't so bright, because he ends up putting the love potion on the wrong man's eyes, which results in a lot of confusion (and I know, honey, this is a ridiculous story--just go along with it!)." My daughter read it on the subway, and as we entered the theater, my mom dusted off her old, enormously comforting refrain: "Don't try to catch every single word they say, honey. No one understands everything, but you'll still be able to follow along as long as you have an idea about the basic plot." Indeed, about ten minutes into the show, I anxiously whispered into my daughter's ear to make sure she knew what was what. She waved me off in frustration: "I know what's going on." I backed off and focused on the play, which is, after all, the thing.

This particular thing is pretty much what everyone else has already said it is: a show that's visually dazzling and endlessly inventive, performed by a physically fascinating if highly inconsistent cast. In short: Prime Taymor.

Julie Taymor gets a lot more flak than your average stage director, even though I bet that in reality she's no bigger a dick than are some of the other heavy-hitters out there. She is reputed to be a spendthrift; a micromanaging control freak; a stubborn narcissist who cares more about her vision than about anyone she works with. I suspect the main problem people have with her, in the end, is that she is brilliant and enormously famous and in possession of a vagina--which of course meant, for example, that she was single-handedly responsible for fucking up Spider-Man,which her all-male creative team otherwise totally had under control from the outset. Especially Bono and The Edge.  

Give me a break, seriously. All directors have their strengths and weaknesses. If you want brilliant acting, see someone else's work. If you prefer an intimate show full of pregnant pauses and meaningful exchanges, buy tickets for something else. But if you want to be dazzled so exceptionally well that you find yourself weeping from the sheer beauty of a sliding panel, a few particularly beautiful bodies in strange and colorful motion, or the projection of a few brilliantly rendered flowers on a plain backdrop, Taymor's your gal. In a small way, she is sort of the Hitchcock of stage directors in that she never seems terribly interested in actors except as a means to a beautiful end.

That's where their comparison ends, though: I bet Hitchcock never once hand-beaded his own costumes, painted a mask, or came up with half as many ways to use a single, enormous bedsheet as Taymor does in this show. My daughter was appropriately dazzled when someone burst through said sheet and descended from the ceiling, or melted, Wicked Witch-like, through the sheet and into the floor. I was enormously relieved that she enjoyed the show--and that she followed the plot like a pro!--but I was too busy drinking it all in myself to fret about her after a time. Thanks to Julie Taymor and my mom, my daughter came away from her first Shakespeare production with a big smile, two thumbs up, and a genuine willingness to see more, whether by Taymor or not.

In sum, then: mom is right about a lot of stuff, even things you think you've got a handle on yourself. And Julie Taymor's A Midsummer Night's Dream is well worth seeing for its innovations, regardless of how inconsistent its actors might be, and regardless of how old you are.

Next up: I take my six-year-old to see Titus Andronicus!

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