MOVIE REVIEW: A Midsummer Night's Dream

When it comes to modernized Shakespeare adaptations, I am inclined to say, "the more, the merrier!" Adapting texts, especially classic ones, from stage to screen can, and should, allow the filmmaker to reshape the text and tell the story from an often completely unexpected new perspective. So Casey Wilder Mott's Kickstarter-funded adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream is right in my wheelhouse of what I want to see in a Shakespeare adaptation. While it keeps the vast majority of the storyline and the original text, it remains true to the surreal, mystic quality of the play's story by placing it in a setting that contemporary audiences will read as appropriately surreal and mystic: Athens is played by Los Angeles, California, and her forested and beachy environs. It's why I'll always argue for the use of contemporary music in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, because it gave the audiences who saw his movie the immediately-understandable equivalent of what those Roaring Twenties parties were like: lush, vivid, hedonistic.
In Mott's vision, the powerful Duke Theseus becomes the equally powerful film executive Duke Theseus; Bottom and the Mechanicals turn from abysmal stage actors into abysmal amateur filmmakers, while the magic and mythos of the fairies is easily rendered as hippie spirituality. We can arguably see this version of A Midsummer Night's Dream the way Shakespearean audiences saw his original play: raunchy, sexy, mysterious, magical, mischievous, and, in spirit, wholly of its own time. We can obviously appreciate and love a by-the-book adaption, and I do! But it's the specificity of this adaptation that makes us understand the play on a more automatic, almost subconscious level.

It's hard to describe the visuals of A Midsummer Night's Dream without getting too hyperbolic, but Mott has really taken pains to make every element of the film experience reflect the essence of the play. Monologues are delivered both as dialogue and as voiceovers, often cutting between both in the middle of a sentence to heighten the sensory and unstable nature of the events of that one night. There are flashbacks and flashes forward, snippets of footage that make it unclear who's watching whom, or whether we're even watching events as they unfold, or a dream, or a film within the film. Aesthetically, A Midsummer Night's Dream is indebted to Luhrmann's dreamy, punkish Romeo + Juliet, but on the whole it reminded me more of Joss Whedon's casual, intimate Much Ado About Nothing in how deeply it's rooted in the specific geography of Los Angeles (where I happened to have grown up). For any filmmaker, turning out a Shakespeare adaptation this creative, vivacious, and hilarious would have been a feat, but it's incredible for a debut feature. (If you're keeping track of the pairings in the Deborah Krieger Film Festival, either the Luhrmann R+J or the Whedon Ado will do.)

The casting is nearly perfect, particularly in the roles of Helena, Nick Bottom, and Puck. In Athens, California, Hermia (Rachel Leigh Cook) is a starlet, Lysander (Hamish Linklater) a photographer, Demetrius (Finn Wittrock) an executive, and Helena (Lily Rabe) a poet/screenwriter. Of those four, Helena is probably the most sympathetic and complex part, because even though she spills the beans to Demetrius that Lysander and Hermia are eloping, her unrequited love for Demetrius makes her pitiable; she also knows how pathetic her pining after Demetrius is, and how terrible it is for her to betray Hermia's trust, and does it anyway. Rabe plays Helena as keenly aware of how she's perceived at all times: when she talks to Demetrius, her voice slips into a higher, more girlish register than the one she uses to talk to Hermia, or in her own monologues. She's bitter and wry and completely compelling.
Finn Wittrock and Lily Rabe.
As the designated comic relief character Nick Bottom, Fran Kranz (who was the naive romantic Claudio in Whedon's Much Ado) delivers all the laughs expected and more. As framed in the contemporary updated setting of the film, he's that guy who's almost a cliche at this point, regardless of which particular creative field you're talking about: the guy who is convinced of his own genius and refuses to consider otherwise, whose confidence and talent are inversely proportional. It's just that this time, he's also the guy trying to sell you his movie he's in (Pyramus and Thisby), which, of course, made me nearly bust a gut laughing when we finally see it. And Avan Jogia plays Puck as a hippie-ish surfer dude, conveying the joie de vivre of the role in an almost stoner-y drawl at times. Saul Williams brings the appropriate levels of pettiness and wisdom as Oberon, King of the Fairies. It's probably by Shakespeare's design that the role of Oberon is a little more showy and emotional than Titiana's, and while Mia Doi Todd is appropriately regal and seductive as Titiana, Williams ultimately wins their battle of wills in the script and on-screen. The pairing of Duke Theseus (Ted Levine) and Hippolyta (Paz de la Huerta) unfortunately fares similarly, because we see more of Theseus's point of view and more of him in general outside of the context of his relationship.

The script smartly trims down and streamlines the story of our lovers in fair Athens, California, cutting a somewhat tertiary subplot here, trimming a monologue there for flow. While giving Hermia the last name "Puppet" and Helena "Maypole," in reference to their later insults towards one another, is much too on-the-nose, the little Shakespeare- and Hollywood-related in-jokes make up for that clumsiness. The incorporation of today's technologies adds both a sense of relevance and even more humor, especially when Helena is trying to get cell service in Topanga Canyon. But what Mott's A Midsummer Night's Dream does best is flesh out certain elements of the story in purely visual terms, using the specificity of the medium of film to do what can't really be done on stage. It's left deliberately ambiguous just how "real" Oberon, Titiana, Puck, and the fairies really are: are they actually fae? Are they merely normal (normal for California, that is) beach hippies? Are they both? Are they even corporeal? In the end, it's clear that Mott is a director to watch, whether he's creating original material, or, as in this case, adapting someone else's into something brand new and exciting.