How now, mad spirit?
One thing you can usually count on Darko Tresnjak for is a consistent style. Whatever you want to say about his recent "Heartbreak House," "Romeo and Juliet" and "Comedy of Errors" — you knew within each show's opening moments what you were going to get in terms of looks, pace and oomph.
But with "A Midsummer Night's Dream," not so much. Tresnjak's new production of the Shakespeare romance, at Hartford Stage through Oct. 8, is elegant, lavish and lush, with moody lighting (by York Kennedy) that befits the supernatural realm of "the king of shadows," Oberon. There is a "Downton Abbey" decorum to the design — a British country estate, with a gatehouse serving as the gateway between the Court of Theseus and the fantastical realm of the nearby forest.
But magic is distinctly lacking. Oberon's woods are orderly, with the same trimmed hedges as Theseus' estate. Actors occasionally flit off into the aisles of the auditorium, but otherwise seem confined by those hedges and a need to regroup regularly for tableaux or tightly blocked ensemble scenes.
It's nice to see a "Midsummer" without children for a change. The fairies are grown women (who double as maids in the palace scenes). The young lovers — Lysander (Tom Pecinka) and Demetrius (Damian Jermaine Thompson), who pursue Hermia (Jenny Leona) until they're enchanted into pursuing Helena (Fedna Laure Jacquet) instead — are all dressed as schoolkids, but they don't come off as particularly young, just impetuous. Jacquet is the most vivacious of the bunch, but she's given a lot of cliched coquettish things to do. None of the lovers seem truly in love.
The steely-eyed Will Apicella as Puck is more malevolent than mischievous. There's little innocence or friskiness to be had in the whole show.
Maturity and immaturity aren't big themes here. Nor are race or cultural differences. What's left? Class. There are rulers and servants on both sides of the gatehouse. There's a strong master/servant mentality that doesn't let the characters break free. Esau Pritichett's Oberon is most distinguised by his commanding voice, and Scarlett Strallen's Titania has a royal air. Those around them simply do their will.
The "Pyramus and Thisbe" playlet as performed by Bottom and the other inept Rude Mechanicals is usually a "Midsummer Night's Dream" showstopper, but in this case grinds the show to a halt. The play-within-a-play is a prime opportunity for actors and directors to poke fun at themselves and their craft, but this rendition veers into abstract, avant-garde territory, not to mention penis jokes. It's hard for the production to collect itself and move on.
As Nick Bottom — the self-confident actor who's transformed into an ass — Jack Lavelle comes painfully close to embracing the very aspects of Bottom that he's meant to be mocking. Lavelle milks his jokes, mugs incessantly and doesn't seem to know when to stop. He also adds unnecessary anachronisms to the show's carefully honed early 20th century British setting, with bad impressions of Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson.
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" opens and closes with some beautiful panoramic montages that encompass all the joy of impending weddings and all the mysteries of life outside those imposing gates. Scarlett Strallen, a Broadway and West End musical theater star, sings an enchanting song at the finale. But there's no consistent middle, just a lot of different ideas that don't connect.
I'm all for experimentation — one of my favorite productions of "Midsummer Night's Dream" ever was Peter Sellar's chamber version done with four actors in a hotel bedroom, and I was mesmerized and greatly amused by the Handspring Puppet Company's rendition at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven in 2012.
But this is a muddled, middle-aged "Midsummer Night's Dream" that disdains youth and lacks spirit.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM plays through Oct. 8 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m.; with 2 p.m. matinees on Sept. 20 and 30 and Oct. 7; and a 7:30 p.m. Sunday show on Sept. 24. $25 to $90. 860-527-5151, hartfordstage.org.