Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” can seem simpering to an unthinking reader, and Los Angeles can seem synthetic to an unthinking observer, and first-time director Casey Wilder Mott has managed to hit both at their lowest common denominator. This adaptation feels like a soap opera made by someone who has seen too much late-stage Woody Allen and flounders with the self-importance of a director unable to read either text or city.
Start with The Bard. Shakespeare is Shakespeare because he manages to render intelligible the most beautiful, and universal, parts of human experience.
That is precisely why modernized adaptations are essential: They keep the eternal words, well, eternal. Fusty hose and bare bodkins can impede modern audiences from seeing how Shakespeare’s words can breathe. Kenneth Branagh’s period-piece productions are an exception, but only just — his “Henry V,” however rousing, remains chained to his chainmail.
Some modernizations have been quite successful. Amid Malibu-blue pools and pistol-wielding mafioso clans, Baz Lurhmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” (1996) rings out the truth of the young love more recognizably than a film set in Renaissance Verona might. Julie Taymor’s “The Tempest” (2010), is experimental, sure, but approaches gender and myth through the quasi-colonial text. Even Jean-Luc Godard’s “King Lear,” a hazy 1987 thematic meditation, offers modern insight into madness and family ties.
These three, and many others, understand the “why” of seeing the centuries-old text through contemporary eyes. A good modernization should ask, and answer, the question of why we keep reading Shakespeare 500 years later. It’s not just to drop quotes at cocktail parties. It’s because, in his characters, we can see the deepest parts of ourselves. Those are the truths that can be read onto any individual life, no matter how, or when, it unfolds.
Mott, who got his start working in the William Morris Agency mailroom, fails precisely because he doesn’t plumb this iridescent text for the truths tucked amid faeries and fauna. A careful production of this play should invite audiences to consider any number of eternal themes — perhaps the blindness of love, or the need to temporarily escape from reality to understand it, or even the release necessary before committing to something as plodding as marriage. And it would be easy; The ageless, mythical forest, the setting for the romp, is already so far outside of traditional time and realistic space.
But instead of inhabiting the text, this film wields it as a gimmick. Mott never offers an answer to the “why” of setting the play in contemporary LA.
His read has missed the city that sighs and heaves, the metropolis that makes and remakes the American imagination in the space of a single afternoon. He paints the dream brittle, his aspirational Los Angeles a silly fabrication. He flirts with themes of inequality and hustle, but fails to see any through, an interpretation that shows his poor readership to be a function of his lack of perception, rather than his lack of education.
There are some actors among the attractive troupe with enough grit to shine. Lily Rabe plays her Helena with a strength that keeps the hard-to-like character from slipping into the pathos of a still-working-on-my-novel hysteria. Saul Williams, a rapper whose moody, masculine lyrics have moved audiences for years, is a leonine, heavy-lidded Oberon who anchors the film. And Avan Jogia adds a necessary, sexy magic(k) as a yoga-dude Puck to an otherwise perfume-commercial portrait of the forest.
But they’re not enough. Time and again, Mott’s arrogance crushes the play. He adds “!!!” after Lysander texts (texts!) Hermia, “If thou lovest me, steal forth with me tonight,” consigning Lysander, one of Shakespeare’s greatest true-love marauders, to technological triteness. He turns Titania and Oberon’s tectonic fight into a music video, one that misunderstands the reason Puck always arrives with the randomized sweetness of bells. It’s because this play has melody without conventional rhythm, and thus shouldn’t be — cannot be — made into a song.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
Directed by: Casey Wilder Mott. Written by: William Shakespeare and Mott. Starring: Lily Rabe, Saul Williams, Avan Jogia, Hamish Linklater, Rachael Leigh Cook, Mia Doi Todd, Fran Kranz.
At Kendall Square. 105 minutes. Unrated.