Why I Love Julie Taymor’s Midsummer Night’s Dream

by Mara Jebsen


While I do not like the phrase, “at the height of her powers,” it comes to mind when I think of Taymor directing this comedy. I don't like the phrase because it seems to anoint the critic with a false sense of her own fortune-telling powers, and has an undue emphasis on the importance of being urgent–as if I were saying, “run, don't walk” to this play. But perhaps you should run–or, more accurately, sit. I had to sit in the stand-by line for a long time, because the play, now running at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center is officially sold out. Sit, and wait, for a long time for this production, because the images it gives you will delight at first, and then, over time, will resolve themselves into a sort of important pastiche that helps you think about love, madness, and Shakespeare.

I had to go because my mother made me. She was a theatre student, a mime, a theatre-director, and a folklorist before she became the director of a k-12 school in West Africa, where she finds an outlet for her enormous creative energy by putting on plays. This year it is Midsummer Night's Dream. “I can't get a feel for it, yet,'' she said. “But Julie Taymor directed it, and I love her, and they're putting it on in a theatre six blocks from your house. I read all about her troubles with Spider-man and had been following her before I had the idea to do Midsummer.It means something. Go. Find out what she's up to.”

I had no idea that my mother loved Julie Taymor. Or that she 'followed” anything that had anything to do with the internet. I promised to do it, but procrastinated, and when I saw that the tickets were sold out, I nearly panicked.

Anyway, here is the gist: initially, even if you are not compiling a list of directorial choices for your mother's use, you will be startled and awed by the choices Taymor makes. There is a stunning mixture of expensive technology and simple stagecraft, and a viewer feels safe the whole while–safe because they are in the hands of a person who will not bore them, who seems to have an exact sense of rhythm, scale and color scheme-and who presents recognizable character 'types' that amuse without degrading the people who make that type.

Which is to say: she does a lot of amazing things with pillows, and children rolling on their backs, kicking thier legs in the air. She can make an enormous, treacherous forest out of kids holding bamboo,and rolling underfoot so that they must be leapt over. There is blood made out of paper streamers, and enormous effect created by the decision to make the characters undress. But there are also projections of huge flowers; there are trapdoors, there is flight, and the costumes are so sumptuous and correct that at the end of it, I found myself in love with both Oberon and Titania, who genuinely seemed something beyond human.

But what is at the core of it? What 'sense' of Shakespeare's play do we get? How can I help my mother get a 'sense' of this play, which I did, myself, in high school, and loved? I read one review–otherwise glowing–that likened Taymor's direction to a 'glittering necklace', and said that it held little emotional depth. This may be sort of true. But If it is true, its only because it is difficult for us to feel different kinds of delight at once. The delight of the spectacle, and the magic trick, seems almost to inhibit the deep thrill one cans sometimes get at the theatre. But I would argue that after the urge to clap like a child wears off, the stranger bits of the bard's nutty story come to light.

For one thing, this is a good play for the lovelorn. It offers the coldish comfort that people's qualities have little or nothing to do with how much they are loved, and by whom. The initial alliances that mark the various couples we learn of make as little sense as the false alliances created by Puck, acting as a cupid. Until I saw Taymor's production, which gets the four young people to undress hilariously as they attack one another in the woods (the angers of the men and women switching from rage at the ones who would not love them, to thier rivals) I hadn't quite sensed the vulnerability, the sheer outrage towards the fates that seems to radiate out of the naked hipbones and chestbones of the characters, who, at one point, are all spurned by thier beloveds at once. What's more, female desire gets a clearer representation on this stage than it does on most stages, and many films, as both Hermia and Helena “forget themselves” occasionally, and are believably come-hither-ish, before they remember that they cannot afford to be that way. Titania, being a fairy-queen, has no such concerns, and gorgeously parries with Oberon, and has no regrets about her wierd romp with a donkey.

When I learned that Taymor also studied folklore and theatre, I had a wierd chill that you get sometimes when you see/feel the similarities between kinds of thinkers. I thought about all of the villages in Benin I was dragged to as a four-year old to see the ritual dances, which were often performances involving amazing animal masks. I saw how it was that my mother, somehow “found” and follows this director on the internet, a thing she generally avoids. Her need to do this is clear to me. I wish I had a more eloquent way of naming this than calling it “mind-kin,” but that is what I've got so far. I have my own intellectual kinships, and the reason these kinship create a chill/thrill is that they feel uncanny, and sometimes connect you to the dead, and to people you've never met. It is lovely to me that my mother has her own mind-kin, and that they are somewhat kin to me, by association.

In any case, Julie Taymor may not be at the height of her powers. There may be more heights, and different ones. But I woud urge audiences to delight unabashedly in her beautiful magic tricks, because they may end up with what she really wants to give them: a stronger sense of what Shakespeare knew about love–and that's no mean feat.