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A dream of a `Dream': Shakespeare as fierce social commentary

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A dazzling production -- to the eye and to the mind -- has joined the repertoire of the Guthrie Theater here, and it's already proving a box office hit at this renowned repertory playhouse. The show is ``A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' staged by Liviu Ciulei, who has been the Guthrie's artistic director since 1980 but is leaving after this season. This is his last work for the Guthrie -- a parting gift that certainly supports the Romanian's brilliant reputation as a creatively disruptive force in world theater. His production's impact lingers long after its stunning visual effects are over, reminding you of how stirring -- how full of unexpected and sometimes perverse meaning -- a classic pla y can become in the hands of an audaciously gifted director.

Ostensibly, Shakespeare's comedy -- set vaguely in ancient Greece -- deals with a cat's cradle of emotional crosscurrents among lovers and the threat these feelings pose to the social equilibrium. A lot of the play takes place in the kingdom of the fairies -- the woods -- where the dream world of the title takes over.

In Athens, Hermia's father has chosen Demetrius as her husband. The trouble is, she loves Lysander, whom her father accuses of ``corrupting'' her imagination. Demetrius, in turn, loves Hermia, while it is Helena who loves him. The ``seething brains'' of lovers, according to Theseus, Duke of Athens, cause turmoil and upset the patriarchal order, and he commands Hermia to submit to her father's wishes.

But in the opening scene just before this confrontation, Ciulei has accomplished an electrifying transformation of the play's ``traditional'' atmosphere. The Guthrie's thrust stage and bare floor are covered with glaring red plastic. Into this harsh, shimmering world steps Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, who has been captured by Theseus and brought back as his bride.

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