About forty-five minutes into The Guthrie’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I was asking myself, “Dude, is Shakespeare played out?”
This was way before a be-spandexed Oberon, wearing a silver wig that would’ve worked on Monday Night Raw, rocked his soliloquy beneath a crystal ball like an Elizabethan Dee Snider.
Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling gets a lot of kudos for his “fresh and sexy” take on Midsummer, some of it justified, some not so much. This is basically a revival of his 1997 interpretation, with some even more impressive visuals—the faeries have even incorporated some Cirque du Soleil-style high-wire acrobatics into their heavy metal pose-striking—and updated (sort of) cultural references.
The Strib and the PiPress have both gushed about Midsummer “pop-culture” references, which include “everything from Riverdance to the Macarena.”
Oh, and how about Barbarella? And Twisted Sister?
The faeries’ gags weren’t the only ones to have grown whiskers. In Midsummer’s venerable play-within-a-play, a troupe readies a performance of “The Sad Tale of Pyramus and Thisbe.” Well, one of the actors drank cans of Premium in a Gophers jersey, and another marched into the woods in his Boy Scout uniform. We get it, Joe—they’re fools.
But I want to be fair. For one thing, J. D. has to play it somewhat broad: he needs to fill three theaters within a $100 million complex on a daily basis. To complicate matters, he has to put butts in the seats with plays that were written in 1588. For another thing, we’re all about constructive criticism on The Morning After. So I went back and thought about which Dowling productions I’ve liked and which ones I haven’t. Then it occurred to me: It’s only Dowling’s Shakespeare comedies that I have disliked, mostly because they are so irritatingly cheesy. But if I like Dowling’s other work, maybe Shakespeare is the cheesy one, not Joe.
Fair question then: Can Shakespeare be funny in the Judd Apatow era?
The afternoon after AMND, I went to the latest Apatow movie, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Like every decent comedy since Meatballs, Sarah Marshall is getting mixed reviews, but trust me (and by this point, you can trust the Apatow brand), it’s a pretty funny movie. It’s your standard farcical premise: dude gets dumped by girlfriend/dude goes to magical island to forget girlfriend/dude runs into girlfriend with new dude/old dude decides to court new girlfriend/old girlfriend notices old dude courting new girlfriend/old girlfriend dumps new dude to court old dude.
Remind you of anything?
The romantic logic isn’t exactly the same, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall doesn’t have any faeries, but it does have big, fat Hawaiians. And a hot chick that falls in love with an ass. And jokes that actually hit. Sure, there were people laughing at the Guthrie, but there was too much “I better laugh loudly or the people around me are going to think I’m stupid” laughter. (Yes, there is such a thing as Shakespearean laughter inflation.)
Regardless, the relevant dilemma remains: Is “When life gives you lemons, just say f*&k the lemons and bail” really that much funnier than, “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was”?
Uh . . . my point is—it’s all in the delivery. Shakespeare’s words can hang with Judd Apatow’s or Kevin Smith’s or Wes Anderson’s. Nick Bottom is the brilliant archetype for every pompous ass inhabited by Adam Sandler to Will Ferrell to Seth Rogan. Look, Puck was Bart Simpson four centuries before Bart Simpson.
Dowling’s Midsummer works when Dowling allows his actors to let the awkward friction—the heat of all great comedy (Freud argued that the mechanism of the joke, like the dream, was to facilitate the safe release of frustrated psychic energy)—to develop naturally. There are a couple of moments when Namir Smallwood’s Puck gives it back to the self-serious Faerie King, Nic Few’s Oberon, almost under his breath. But these subtle disses are overwhelmed by all the smoke and sequins and cheesy sound effects. And Stephen Pelinsky, as Bottom, works miracles with the props that he’s been given. But seriously, does Shakespeare really need to do prop comedy in every single scene? Sarah Marshall barely needed anything—in fact, its funniest sight gag comes courtesy of a little (okay, a lot of) full frontal male nudity. The rest of it was just words delivered with the right amount of whatever. But the comedy in Dowling’s Midsummer is stretched thin by dated cultural references sent up with the sophistication of a watermelon mallet. Puck doesn’t need a new rap—just fresh beats. (Yes, unfortunately, Puck actually does rap in this show.)
Like the sonnet in the fourteenth century, twenty-first century comedy has come to be guided by what the Italians referred to as sprezzatura—making hard work look easy. And comedy is not easy. But Dowling is working so hard up there that you wish you could cringe under one of those plastic sheets they used to hand out at Gallagher concerts—there’s nothing funny or clever about what’s being thrown at you, you just want to avoid getting shtick all over your theater best.
Mr. Dowling, respectfully, rent Juno.