PRINT May 1966

James Dine Designs Sets for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

FOR THIS SEASON’S FINAL PRODUCTION, the Actor’s Workshop announced a new look at Shakespeare. By securing the services of New York artist Jim Dine, the Workshop would float “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” down the mainstream of modern art.

Shakespeare’s wedding comedy seems so tired staged as an operetta, the hermaphroditic bastard of the Elizabethan Bard and Felix Mendelssohn that John Hancock, the Workshop’s new director, started out with Dine to create a black comedy, an anti-romantic damnation not only of romance but of love between the sexes. Transcontinental collaboration isn’t easy without Hollywood’s special ability to make time with money. Dine visited San Francisco briefly while the show was in early planning stages. He sent his sketches by mail. They were realized by the Workshop staff under the direction of Robert LaVigne. Time and money problems took their toll, but the production is brilliant theatre. It preserves the meaning of the Bard’s words, and the beauty of their music.

The dominant visual motif in the Workshop production is the rainbow. The proscenium is a fuller one than you’ll see after most showers, Shakespeare’s dream world seen through a prism. What’s within glints with a full spectrum, given new brilliance by fluorescent colors which sometimes are kindled to a truly unearthly glow by black light. Even the curtain, a rectangular crazy-quilt that only partially covers the acting space, is part of the rainbow motif. Besides the rainbow colors, the curtain uses a progression of grey shades, utilizing an effect that Dine’s drawings show he originally conceived for bottom to top of some of the costumes. There might have been floating actors, but where money and time are problems who can be sure what subtleties will have to go?

The proscenium rainbow suffers from flatness almost as much as Carol Doda would—it would be fine if it could come to life as do the fluorescent stripes painted all over the almost nude and very hairy figure of Puck. The right hand of Oberon, the fairy king, is also a shining rainbow, an inhuman webbed hand which plausibly makes fireballs appear and flowers bloom on stage.

The rainbow motif goes further in the costumes. Both sluttish Hermia and Helena (accentuated in burlesque since she’s played by a usually bearded actor almost six and a half feet tall) have rainbow-painted breasts on their dance hall satin outfits.

At the end of the biggest rainbow is a pot of gold: a Wurlitzer jukebox, vintage 1930. When Titania wiggles off the burley-que ramp to make it with Bottom (whose ass’s head is magnificent beyond belief) the little green light on the Wurlitzer screams “Make Selection!” The whole box pulsates. Out of it comes not Mendelssohn, but Mahler’s orgy music, “Song of the Earth.”

The ripe sexuality of the play is made visual in hearts and flowers. Puck swings in on a heart-shaped red cushion suspended from a silver chain. His staff has a red flower flowing from its end, and he fondles it like some nightmare phallus as he watches the effects of his love potion on Titania and Bottom. As if to remind Bottom that despite his grotesque ears he’s still a man, one of the fairies follows him around, thrusting a staff between his legs, and making the flower on its end swell and contract like a sea anemone.

The fairies are transformed from dainty inhabitants of children’s coloring books into hulking creatures of the subconscious. One of the wildest visual effects comes when Moth, Peasblossom and company manipulate fluorescent moths, caterpillars and birds made of mutilated rubber dolls on the ends of sticks. Mahler’s music roars as the creatures dance in the midst of realistic foliage of Congo lushness, and whirl out over the audience.

Dine’s drawings show he conceived the menials to be as much a part of the real world as fairies are of the world of our dreams. With great care he drew common objects they were to carry, down to teeth on the carpenter’s saw. The menials came across funny, and served Shakespeare’s purpose of satirizing literature about the snare of romantic love in which the more exalted characters are trapped. But their costumes are hand-me-downs from an earlier production of Brecht’s “Edward II,” another case of crass practicality interfering with the wedding of artist’s and director’s conception.

Hippolyta, the Duke of Athen’s Amazon prize, appears in Dine’s funky drawings with leopard leggings and cape, pasted cut-outs from a slick magazine. In production she comes on in a black bamboo cage (Blake marriage cage?) and shocks because she’s in blackface and body, and because she acts as vicious as the beast whose skin she wears. Her lord, Theseus, is played in the most conventional way, and wears the dullest possible Roman toga.

Rumor says Theseus was originally to be a seated dummy from Madame Tussaud’s local branch, electronically articulate. But Hancock decided to keep his speaking characters human, and left the dummy in the play as a meaningless, speechless, staring figure holding the scales of justice. Originally, as every tourist notices, Justice was one of the more gruesome displays in the wax museum’s Murderer’s Row.

Dine’s idea for linoleum backing was transformed into the cheapest of new materials, vinyl plastic. It was left loose, and in the last scene a spot shining against it produced an orange illusion of dawn’s early light. Hanging high against the black vinyl backdrop were more common objects: a moon and stars that looked as if they were made by a cookie cutter.

What of the production’s success? As far as most San Francisco critics are concerned, the play redeems the Workshop’s reputation for maintaining an area outpost of what they call “intellectual theatre.” Local art critics have said nothing about it. This lamentable omission is probably unavoidable as long as a split between arts is maintained by people paid to criticize them. The Workshop production is a healthy demonstration that this split can be mended in practice.

How effective is the wedding of painting and theatre, of Dine and Hancock? The gap could probably be bridged better, and in fact already has been, locally. The Mime Troupe’s production of “Ubu Roi,” directed by R. G. Davis with sets and costumes by William T. Wiley, was more of a total success, though the Mime Troupe isn’t professional in the sense that the Workshop is, and can command neither the re-sources nor the audience the Workshop can. (See Artforum, February, 1964.) Wiley worked on every stage of production, and the conception grew out of a sustained dialogue between friends rather than a few conversations between collaborators.

A complicating factor in the Workshop production is the fact that it was a three way match. Resident Set Designer LaVigne’s practical involvement in the marriage between Shakespeare and contemporary painting certainly went beyond carrying out orders, and he deserves to be praised and blamed along with Hancock and Dine. On whom do we blame Demetrius’s electrically flashing fluorescent cerise codpiece? On whom Theseus’s wooden mode of delivery? Who deserves credit for whipping the curtain off the Wurlitzer? On what do we blame the exposed grey legs of the long curving catwalk?

Whatever Dine’s real part in the Workshop production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the potential of this sort of adventurous collaboration is higher than the transient participation in the contemporary scene via Happenings could be. It would be good if the next time a painter makes his mark on the stage, his involvement in the production could be still greater.

David Zach