Five days before director Tom Morris and Handspring Puppet whizzes Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones's most celebrated collaboration rolled into Charlotte, the War Horse creators' latest conspiracy, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, began previews at Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston. Call this collaboration "Peace Horse," because the two design concepts could hardly be more radically different.
Where War Horse was elegant, sophisticated, and artful; Midsummer is crude, rudimentary, and vulgar. The two pairs of young lovers who flee Athens wield puppets that are actually more like dolls. They can walk like marionettes if guided over a flat surface, but the actors who portray Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius must manipulate the arms and heads of their corresponding action figures by hand. No strings attached. Until the final scene, Oberon and Titania are little more than busts of Grecian sculpture, though the fairy king does wield a supersized hand that could double as a hedge clipper.
Cheesiest of all is Puck, manipulated and spoken by no fewer than three of the actors who double as the mechanicals. Two of them hold tools and another a simple wicker basket - in configurations that don't really resemble anything human, animal, or vegetable, let alone members of the gossamer fairy realm.
So the one visible link between War Horse and Midsummer occurs when Bottom, the hambone mechanical, is transformed into an ass. In my 26 years of reviewing, I have never been as shocked as I was by the first sight of this miracle of machinery, costuming, and buck-naked audacity.
Staring at actor Miltos Yerolemu's haunches, for this is a Bottom who truly moons the moon, I found myself thinking: Are they really doing this at Dock Street Theatre? At Spoleto?! It isn't an optical illusion, and the longer we watch this incredible coup de theatre, the funnier it gets. As he lies face down, Bottom's backside is right above Yerolemu's bent knees, for the boots he is wearing are now Bottom's ears and eyes, and as he propels himself with bicycle pedals using his hands, his head is draped with the ass's tail.
No matter which end of the transformed Bottom she fondles, Titania winds up kissing an ass's ass.
The more I thought about this striking concept, the more apt it seemed. Oberon is humiliating Titania so thoroughly and obscenely that he cannot help but be appalled and take pity once his queen has yielded. And when has Shakespeare's transformation ever looked more perfect for a weaver named Nick Bottom?
All of the Bristol Old Vic cast are to the manner born, beginning with the minor mechanicals, who chat up the audience in the pre-show. Saskia Portway starts the evening in an artist's studio as Amazonian Queen Hippolyta, coldly showing her displeasure at Duke Theseus for siding with Hermia's domineering father (another fine Yerolemu role) in demanding that she marry Demetrius despite her love for Lysander. But Portway is best remembered for the sincerity of her raptures toward Bottom's nether parts.
The figure Portway is sculpting when we first see her is likely the bust of King Oberon, whom David Ricardo Pearce will double as after his opening appearance - in a wicked leather jacket - as Duke Theseus. Pearce's depiction of these dictatorial royals tip our sympathies more than usual toward the women they afflict.
Maybe if I see this production a second time, I'll have a theory about what Morris might be trying to say as the young lovers gradually discard their puppets during their sojourn in the wood. The props certainly don't get in the way in the climactic four-way free-for-all, where Alex Felton as Lysander, Naomi Cranston as Helena, Kyle Lima as the inconstant Demetrius, and especially Akiya Henry as the diminutive Hermia all show their mettle before the three-headed Puck restores order.
Yeah, the Morris-Handspring concept would crumble at the end if, after the customary massacre of Pyramus and Thisbe, that cheesy Puck had the last word. Believe me, with one last stroke of puppet magic, all is mended. And believe me, Morris and Handspring can do comedy.