Julie Taymor's Midsummer Night's Dream

The inaugural production at the Theatre for a New Audience's new Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Julie Taymor, lives up to the impressive hype it has received. Seeing it on my birthday, my expectations were high and I wasn't disappointed.  My wife loved it, and her honest critiques are legendary, so that's saying a lot.

Taymor proves that the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship she won back in 1991, the so-called "Genius Grant," was well-earned. Her direction and staging were memorably inspired with many truly "genius" moments, from the play's opening visual when a bed rises to the rafters, lifted by gnarled branches and sweeping sheets, to the casting of children as the fairies and woodland spirits.

She does a marvelous job of blending the whimsy and nightmarish qualities found in William Shakespeare's popular comedy, the latter often ignored in many revivals, but here Taymor's visual skills work well. Kathryn Hunter delights as Puck, bringing the mischievous shape-shifter alive as she contorts her body with a gleam in her eye.

The chemistry between Oberon and Titania is one of the best I've seen. Depicted by David Harewood and Tina Benko, they bring power to the roles and are not overshadowed by the dramatic lighting and set design, but rather successfully match it, pushing themselves to higher heights, letting the language work its wonders, while delivering the physicality that's needed to make them believable as the supernatural forces they represent, whose volatile love affair has caused the seasons to flip and nature itself to rise up in tumult.

I always love seeing how actors interpret the scenes with the Rude Mechanicals, bringing fresh laughs to the oft-performed play-within-a-play. Led by Max Casella (who has come a long way since his days as the excellent Vinnie Delpino on Doogie Howser MD), the gang of workingmen, who moonlight as actors, manages to find new ways of delivering the humor and delighting the audience.

The show works best during the moments of fancy, when the dreamlike elements take center stage, with Puck's manipulations and the fairies transforming into the elements of earth, sky, and water, with Oberon and Titania riding the winds and Bottom "transmogrified" into an ass.

The subplot of the lovers' triangle -- I mean quadrangle! -- starts off as rather typical of other versions I've seen, but Taymor's originality comes through again, turning the woods into a haunted labyrinth and then into a silken bedroom as the interactions among Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena reach a peak of farce that I believe would have pleased the Bard himself.

We see much of Taymor's signature visuals that fans have come to expect, from actors playing animals a la The Lion King...

...to aerial dramatics that fit so well with the text that all the negative headlines from Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark will be forgotten.

I don't envy the creative minds behind the shows at TFANA that will follow this one (King Lear and The Killer). They have a tough act to match, but the stage has been set for wonderful productions to come.