Sitting in beach chairs, two men one in a pink elephant costume, the other dressed like a sci-fi rock god eat popcorn while two half-naked women claw at each other from perches on the backs of their shirtless suitors. It's not an image that quickly brings the word Shakespearean to mind. And judging by the number of similarly gonzo moments in this Off Broadway production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Classic Stage Company (running through May 20), that's exactly the point.
Directed by Tony Speciale, the show is Shakespeare for people tired of Shakespeare, a haphazard mix of alternate readings that jumps at any chance to superficially tweak the bard's tale of four lovers in an enchanted forest no matter how uneven the result. In this interpretation, the lovesick maidens Hermia (Christina Ricci) and Helena (Halley Wegryn Gross) are vaguely identified as spoiled Athenian princesses. (The time period, if there is one, isn't clear.) They wear faux-pearl necklaces and heels, and when Hermia flees the city, she brings two Louis Vuitton duffels along. Their paramours, Lysander (Nick Gehlfuss) and Demetrius (Jordan Dean), are foppish, preening studs who seem far more in love with themselves (and even, occasionally, with each other) than with their ladies. The queens Hippolyta and Titania (both played by Bebe Neuwirth, still impossibly lithe) are steel-willed dominatrixes, while kings Oberon and Theseus (both Anthony Heald) are regal egomaniacs, and the fairy Puck (Taylor Mac) is a campy mix of drag queen and Pierrot. As the plot unfolds, putting its characters into a Rubik's cube of magically shifting romantic arrangements, Shakespeare's dialogue is arbitrarily set to music, read sarcastically, or even supplemented with cheeky ad-libs. (It doesn't take a dramaturge to know that the oath ''Goddamn skinny jeans!'' isn't in the original text.)
Throughout the show, it's impossible to tell if Speciale had any particular take on the material. He seems to have let each member of his company come with their own ideas, and the endless non sequiturs (Why does one fairy wear green foam Incredible Hulk gloves? Why does the magical love-potion flower cast its spell with smoke, bubbles, and water?) become tiring. They don't illuminate the play as much as distract from it. Even the charismatic and uniformly polished cast can't make you care about the storylines unfolding beneath all the nonsensical furor. It forces the viewer to wonder: If this company really thought A Midsummer Night's Dream needed so much desperate alteration to entertain an audience (it doesn't, by the way), then why did they put the play on in the first place? C+
(Tickets: classicstage.org or 212-352-3101)