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Taymor’s ‘Dream’; Broadway’s Harlem Renaissance: Review

Tina Benko as Titania, the fairy queen, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The production is staged by Julie Taymor. Source: Es Devlin/Bruce Cohen P.R. via Bloomberg

Julie Taymor’s billowy, acrobatic staging of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” inaugurates Theatre for a New Audience’s brand new home across from the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Three nomadic decades under the leadership of the indefatigable Jeffrey Horowitz have finally come to an end. Architect Hugh Hardy’s great-looking showcase has huge glass windows looking out onto the BAM campus and an intimate, if problematic, black-box inside.

The show, Taymor’s first since the $85 million debacle of “Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark,” is a homecoming for the director, whose TFNA productions of “Titus Andronicus” and “The Tempest” helped define contemporary Shakespeare staging.

“Dream” opens promisingly, with the audience encircling a simple square stage with a bed in the center. Robin Goodfellow, the sprite known as Puck and played by the astonishing actor/contortionist Kathryn Hunter, takes to that bed, which rises in a billow of white to the rafters before magically disappearing. The notion of the play as indeed a dream has seldom been so strikingly realized.

Mismatched Lovebirds

Before the facade of an Athenian palace and in the nearby forest, the twin tales unfold. With Puck pulling the strings, the mismatched lovebirds Hermia, Helena, Demetrius and Lysander sort out their affairs with the help of some herbal magic. The jealous fairy King Oberon induces his Queen Titania to make love to an ass.

And of course, those working-class yokels known collectively as the Rude Mechanicals are rehearsing their play to be performed at the nuptials of Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta.

Taymor winkingly quotes herself with visual references to “The Lion King” (there are animal headdresses; Oberon sports spiny golden crest). A gaggle of 20 children enlivens the crowd scenes and Elliot Goldenthal’s music -- as often a soundscape as a score -- increases the enchantment.

And the aerial scenes here are closer to vintage “Peter Pan” than “Spider-Man.” You won’t find yourself fearing for anyone’s safety in this satisfyingly non-techy production.

On the other hand, there’s a certain amount of repetition as that billowing sheet rises and falls and rises again. Taymor seems to run out of ideas, relying on the tried-and-true, from the slapstick rubes to the awkward young lovers. (A bosky pillowfight is embarrassing.)

Uneven Casting

In an uneven cast, David Harewood’s imposing, stentorian Oberon and Tina Benko’s atypically icy Titania stand out along with the spiky red-headed Hunter, whose impish mischief and pretzel-twisting acrobatics imbue the proceedings with deep humanity.

As for the theater, officially named the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, I hope that future, traditional configurations will be more forgiving of the austere space. For “Dream,” the seats are uncomfortable and some face away from the stage, and the audience is poorly raked, making it difficult to see from the back rows. Leaving and entering the auditorium is weirdly challenging.

Through Jan. 12, 2014 at Theatre for a New Audience, 262 Ashland Place, Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Information: +1-866-811-4111; Rating: ***½.

‘After Midnight’

“After Midnight” brings a tonic dose of Harlem’s vaunted nightlife to Broadway for about 90 minutes of uninterrupted pleasure wrapped in Isabel Toledo’s clingy, feather-crazed costumes for the women and whimsical tails-with-a-twist for the men.

The master of ceremonies is Dule Hill, a star of TV’s “Psych” and “The West Wing.” He delivers Langston Hughes sound bites to place us in the Depression-Era setting of uptown spots like the Cotton Club.

Behind him on John Lee Beatty’s spare set are the Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars, whose director, Wynton Marsalis, is one of the show’s producers.

The big band is so good it sometimes outshines the stars, performing 24 songs that range from “I’ve Got the World on a String” to Sippy Wallace’s “Women Be Wise”.

Conceived by City Center Encores! Artistic Director Jack Viertel, “After Midnight” plans a series of guest stars to entice patrons.

Fantasia Barrino

The headliner for the next few months is Fantasia Barrino, who delivers fine, if not particularly self-stamped, versions of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Stormy Weather.”

Next up, in February, is k.d. lang.

But for personality and edge, you must hear Adriane Lennox’s hardcore cover of Ethel Waters’s “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night.”

Interpersed are dazzling dances (the seamless staging is by director and choreographer Warren Carlyle), including tap exhibitions by Jared Grimes, Julius “iGlide” Chisolm and Virgil “Lil’ O” Gadson.

The sensational Karine Plantadit, dancing to the Ellington masterpiece “Black and Tan Fantasy,” is the high point of the show.

At the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St. Information: +1-877-2502929; Rating: ****

What the Stars Mean:
*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Elin McCoy on wine, Lance Esplund on U.S. art, Katya Kazakina on the art market, Stephanie Green’s D.C. Scene and Robert Heller on pop music.

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