By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***** out of *****.
Writer-director Richard Griffin’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s circa 1590-1597 penned romantic comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2016), pulsates with magic, splendor and eloquence. It is a passion project the Providence, Rhode Island born craftsmen has been attempting to bring to fruition since 2000. This is highly visible in the final product, which burns with the ardor of a long spent wish finally realized. The Scorpio Film Releasing distribution is both a beauty of sight and of sound; a searing triumph of frisky, smoothly paced entertainment. This is as much a courtesy of Jill Poisson’s rich, hypnotic cinematography and Griffin’s lively, astonishing handling of the production as it is the unmistakable, Early Modern English language of The Bard himself. Such an element Griffin takes directly from the original work. Even though Griffin has moved the central action from Ancient Greece, in an unspecified year, to Athens, Massachusetts in 1754: the rhythm, and amusing nuance (which is often innuendo based), of Shakespeare’s opus remains intact. All of this combines to create an affectionate, faithful homage to the source material. Yet, it distinctly resonates with the core of a Griffin construction. It is both radiant, sidesplitting, cutting edge, a bit old fashioned and affecting. Regardless, there is an innocence to the labor that showcases the sheer variety Griffin, who has toiled largely in the cinematic horror genre, is more than capable of conducting. Griffin, whose first celluloid tour de force was a modernized version of Shakespeare’s roughly 1588-1593 scribed tragedy Titus Andronicus (2000), is obviously well-versed in the narrative. This knowledge accentuates the sum of the vehicle. It makes its humor even more affective. This evident wisdom makes its message all the clearer. Moreover, its dramatic intervals are increasingly stalwart and wrenching. In turn, we are amended what is a highlight in Griffin’s multi-faceted career. This is undoubtedly one of the best pictures of the year.
Heightened by a few sly modern touches, such as a quick midway gag involving our obviously enthralled characters passing along a bowl of popcorn to one another, the sum of the effort is a wholly fresh and unique experience. It is as much a testament to Shakespeare’s sustained relevance as it is a display of Griffin’s endearing charms. Moreover, the theatrical roots of the exertion are more than perceptible. It is seen in the larger than life, yet still delightfully intimate, representations from everyone involved. This is as notable in Anna Rizzo’s riveting portrayal of the Queen of the Fairies, Titania, as it is with Johnny Sederquist’s punk rock take on the English mythology based elf, Puck (who is also known by the moniker of Robin Goodfellow). The more straight-forward presentations, such as Steven O’ Broin’s terrific and mature depiction of Theseus, balance out pleasantly the plethora of more light-hearted entities which dominate the affair.
There is a wide range of categorical beats and themes, with the reversal of gender roles, transformation, the supernatural and the pursuit and nature of amour being at the forefront, that must be successfully orchestrated. Yet, the entire cast pulls it all off as if it as natural as breathing. Jamie Dufault as Demetrius, Laura Pepper as Robin Starveling, Aaron Andrade as the comical Snout and Elizabeth Loranth as Helena are especially good. The same can be said for Alexander Platt as Oberon, Josh Fontaine as the man turned donkey, Nick Bottom, Lee Rush as Hippolyta, Lydea Irwin as Mustardseed, Bruce Church as Egeus, Christin Goff as Rita Quince and Ashley Harmon as Hermia. She is the conflicted admirer of both Lysander (in an entrancing turn from Charlie Ferguson) and Demetrius. These stretches mechanize terrifically due, in part, to the fact that the chemistry between Harmon and Ferguson is palpable. This makes the numerous sequences revolving around their relationship even more hypnotic, wrenching and stunning.
What is just as incredible is that the 105-minute feature, despite its $25,000 price tag, remarkably comes off as if its budget is as gargantuan as its upbeat, often seductive, spirit. This manifests immediately in an impressively showcased, 65 second opening credits arrangement. With its cheery palette and blue lettering, it quickly captures the mystical disposition at the center of the narrative. Everything in this section seems bathed in moonlight. This integral ingredient is a mood-setting fixture in the initial literature itself. The plentiful shots of this aforesaid nighttime glimmer hovering above the forest in the presentation are equally intoxicating throughout. This commencing scene also comes across as strikingly retro. Such a visage could easily fit within the confines of a 1980’s style photographic opus. Given Griffin’s penchant for mirroring the look and feel of silver screen marvels from past decades, this similarity could be intentional.
Advancing the overall appeal is the extraordinary effects from Torey Haas and John Dusek. They backup these prior addressed, bygone qualities spectacularly. Simultaneously, Griffin’s editing is top notch. Chad Kaplan’s Cupid animation is sensational. Margaret Wolf provides stellar, era appropriate costume design. Furthermore, the makeup from Jaquelyn Fabian, Scott C. Miller and Sissy O’ Hara is phenomenal. The Shakespeare writ “Lullaby”, wonderfully composed by Mark Cutler and captivatingly performed by Rizzo, Irwin and Harmon, is elegantly designed and delivered. Likewise, both the gentle and emotive Cutler authored, put together and sung “In My Dreams” as well as Daniel Hildreth’s ambient music augments perpetual lavishness to the project.
Griffin, whose script for this crowd-funded undertaking is both robust and brilliant, handles the various interconnected plotlines of this complex affair splendidly. The first of these are Hermia’s refusal to marry Demetrius. Such transpires due to her strong affinity for Lysander. Additionally, there is the creation of the play Nick Bottom, Snug (in a bravura role from Christian Masters), Tom Snout, Robin Starverling and Francis Flute (in a terrific enactment by Ryan Hanley) plan to act in for the Duke and Queen’s wedding. Many of the early guffaws triumphantly derive from this account. King of the Fairies, Oberon, and his summoning of Puck to concoct a love potion, which gradually goes out of control, is spectacularly issued. Some of the most visually and sentimentally dazzling bits in the fabrication stem from these segments. Hermia and Lysander’s escape into the same area where Titania resides becomes a focal point. This is for the assembly of all these previously stated anecdotes into one setting. It is all punctuated by a final monologue by Puck that is assuredly smirk-inducing. Such also offers a grand climactic point. This instant reiterates the enchanted atmosphere of the undertaking masterfully.
In a filmography that ranges from fun, 1950’s modeled alien invasion illustrations (2010’s nostalgia fueled Atomic Brain Invasion), John Waters Reminiscent comedies (2014’s ingenious Accidental Incest) and 1970’s grindhouse brand B-movies (2011’s The Disco Exorcist), Griffin’s vision of A Midsummer Night’s Dream fits comfortably in the inarguably varied body of his career. His stamp is on every achingly alluring frame of his latest endeavor. There is also a delicate gentleness to the proceedings, an attention to detail and an admiration and pride for the centuries old text which pulsates proudly through the duration. Such helps bring the composition to life in a way unseen in preceding interpretations of the fiction. This is as much a thanks to his cast of frequent collaborators, all of whom continue to prove their flexibility and variability with the diversity of roles Griffin has handed them throughout the years, as it is solid proof of Griffin’s own multi-faceted talents. With his latest contribution, Griffin soars and astounds. All the while, he also makes us laugh, contemplate and reflect. Though the words and events may be that of Shakespeare, the voice we hear radiating through the entirety is distinctly that of Griffin. What Griffin provides here, besides another example of his absolute command of form, is a masterclass in how to take an oft told tale and make it solely your own.