The air-conditioning was dead at the Westwood Playhouse Tuesday and the place was sweltering. Heat is a tangible nuisance. It didn't enhance the magic of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Nothing went wrong with the rest of this child's comic book version--essentially the same one that had enchanted us this summer in Solvang's open-air Festival Theatre (reconstituted here by Actsport Productions)--but nothing was entirely right. A lot of that fairy dust had fallen off in the transfer. The actors were pushing too hard, the language was slurred when it should have been crisp and Thomas Buderwitz's clever pop-up set overwhelmed a stage that was a size too small.
Once again, transplanting a hit production has proven a will-o'-the-wisp. Peter Erskine's original score is still an absolute joy and director John C. Fletcher's prodigious ideas snap, crackle and pop.
The begged, borrowed, ad-libbed and stolen aspects of the show still work like a charm. "Get thee to a nunnery, why dontcha?" gets as big a laugh here as it did in Solvang; the Dr. Seuss effect of props and costumes (by Mary "Sam" Fleming) is as brilliant as ever; the muppet puppets (Peaseblossom and company) are a super solution to that problem and James Wesley Mann's tender, wry and weirdly double-jointed Puck makes it through absolutely unscathed.
So why didn't we have more fun?
In part it was the closeness--meaning both heat and distance. This is a show that needs air in every sense. Magick at too close a range reduces down to nuts and bolts. Its seams grow visible.
Suddenly, except for Julia Fletcher who maintains dignity and elocution as the distracted Helena (proving that it can be done), the acting of this very young cast appears more collegiate than skilled. Michael Scott Ryan's silver-clad Oberon proves less than silver-tongued, especially when it comes to telling us about that bank whereon the wild thyme grows. Casey Daly is awfully young to be playing that angry father, Egeus. And K. T. Vogt as his rebellious daughter Hermia has lots of trouble knowing when it's OK to rant and scream, and when it's important to speak the speech trippingly--but clearly --on the tongue. She merely rants at double-speed.
This loss of lyricism is something Fletcher should look to right away, because methinks the production had it in its earlier incarnation (or was it a midsummer delusion under the stars?). He should also look to those Athenian Mechanicals of Local 32. Charles Hyman is a fine new Nick Bottom (replacing Lawrence Hecht), but the rest are getting a little unruly, a little carried away.
They're forgetting that the first rule of comedy is to play it unfunny--with dedicated seriousness. The final scene of the play-within-the-play, however, when Fletcher dims the comic lights to dark and briefly puts asses' heads on the Athenian spectators, remains a forceful stroke of imagination. It places a sobering accent on the impermanence of role-playing (who is laughing best, last and at whom), setting a lyrical and slightly rueful tone for the play's lyrical and, here, slightly rueful end.
In that sense, this "Midsummer Night's Dream" remains an experience. But in too many instances the director's ideas exceed the company's ability to adequately fulfill them. With that major exception of Mann. His Puck is unequivocally delicious--sweet, a little sad, never excessive or self-indulgent.
His combat with a giant teddy-bear is one for the archives and the winning, naughty-child bleakness of his expression, the Buster Keatonish aura, are those of the classic clown. This Robin Goodfellow will go places.
Meanwhile, fix the air-conditioner, rein in those actors, clean up the diction and this "Midsummer" could still be right as rain.
'A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM' Shakespeare's play presented by Actsport Productions at the Westwood Playhouse, 10886 LeConte Ave. in Westwood (213) 208-5454 or (213) 410-1062. Director John C. Fletcher. Original music Peter Erskine. Scenery Thomas Buderwitz. Lighting Greg Sullivan. Costumes Mary "Sam" Fleming. Stage manager Rick Manfredi. Cast Robert Jacobs, Marilyn Fox, John Furse, John DeMita, K. T. Vogt, Julia Fletcher, Vince Melocchi, Casey Daly, Michael Scott Ryan, Grace Zandarski, Bonnie Bowers, James Wesley Mann, Bud Leslie, Charles Hyman, Rod Gnapp, Philip Brotherton, Philip Stockton, Robert Kempf and others. Plays Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 p.m. with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30. Indefinitely. Tickets: $20-$22.50.