by JK Clarke
William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a fan favorite. It’s one of those plays that survives a heavy editing process and always seems to please, no matter the interpretation. As a result, many directors often use a smaller cast and cut seemingly superfluous, though impactful scenes. Not so with the The Public Theater’s second offering of this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park series. It not only includes all the oft-deleted fairy scenes, but is a magical presentation of the Bard’s most unique and ethereal comedy. Innovative director Lear deBessonet has added some unusual tweaks to the fanciful journey into the forest, creating an even more wondrous and special atmosphere that delivers on its title.
Perhaps the most enchanting moment is the use of actors in their 70s and 80s, by all appearances (and of various theatrical backgrounds—one actor’s bio suggests that she has just returned to acting upon retirement)—to portray the Fairies who (if their scenes aren’t cut) are usually played by lithe young men and women. Such nontraditional casting serves to deepen the Fairies’ meaning and purpose. Rather than representing youth, they enact a return to youth, freedom and innocence.
A play that never seems to want to adhere to any tradition or period in the first place, this Midsummer is a veritable pageant of styles and eras. Clint Ramos’s remarkable costumes float from fairy tale royalty to Peter Pan pajamas to bright, silky, primary-colored (emphasis on bright orange, yellows and blues) versions of traditional city wear, but with a Caribbean flavor. Somehow they all fit beautifully together on David Rockwell’s enchanting forest set that evokes Neverland with large, artificial-looking, yet sumptuous trees that looks like they might house Keebler elves; a tree house hosting a nightclub band; and a slide emerging from the branches. It’s not just a forest, but a playland.
The play’s storyline is strangely complex, while not being nearly as complicated or messy as Shakespeare’s other comedies (which usually involve a character on the precipice of a state sponsored death sentence that serves as a heavy counterpoint to absurd comic relief). Here it’s a question of unrequited young lovers of Athens (and yes, one potentially faces a death sentence, if she marries the wrong man) who flee to the forest, pursued by one jilted lover and another who loves him. Meanwhile, the king and queen of fairies are quarreling over the queen’s refusal to relinquish a changeling boy she has in her protection. At the same time, the Duke of Athens is preparing to marry the Queen of the Amazons and in preparation for their nuptials a group of bumbling artisans are preparing a play for the royal wedding. Everyone’s fates collide in the forest on a single night, which, after a series of confounding mix-ups, changes them all for the better. Despite the apparent seriousness of these interlocking love affairs, it’s the presence of the fairies and the mischievous and momentarily mixed up Puck (who douses the wrong lovers with a magic potion inadvertently making them fall in love), that keeps the plot points relatively superficial.
But notwithstanding the lyrical beauty of Shakespeare’s dialog, these various plots—particularly in deBessonet’s production—are merely a framework on which to hang one outstanding and often magical performance after another, so much so that the play merits multiple viewings (were that possible). The sum of each amazing part makes for a thrilling whole:
The lovers of Athens are bolstered by Shalita Grant’s charming Hermia and Annaleigh Ashford’s absolutely amazing performance as Helena, desperate in love and refusing to take no for an answer. The Broadway sensation handles the Shakespearean dialog with absolute ease, as if it’s a language she speaks every day; and she punctuates it with pouts, pratfalls and winks that win over the audience from her very first scene.
The forest artisans (The Mechanicals) are hilarious to a person, from Jeff Hiller’s indignant Francis Flute/Thisbe to six-time Tony nominee Danny Burstein as Nick Bottom/Pyramus who seemed born for the role and was having as much fun, if not more, than the audience. His transformation (by Puck as punishment for his hubris) into, and subsequent scenes as, a donkey, is a performance for the ages.
The Fairies (led by Richard Poe as Oberon and Phylicia Rashad as Titania) are especially enchanting, as they should be, for their wide-eyed wonderment and expressiveness. Charming and captivating Vinie Burrows as Peaseblossom and Warren Wyss as Mustardseed, along with the others, shuffled their way through their scenes in white pajamas like nursing home residents suddenly stripped of worry and infused with energy and joy, reminding us (and the lovers) that all the sturm und drang is pointless, that life is to be lived and loved. For the Duke’s wedding they all come out dressed in the formal wear of their “era” wonderful flapper dresses and tails for the men. Delightful Benjamin Ye played the Changeling Boy with an abundance of cute.
A fascinating and brilliant choice to play Puck, another Broadway favorite, Kristine Nielsen, took the sprite’s mischievousness to another, more benevolent level. She’s a little clumsy, but overall impishly loving and as gleeful as the Fairies.
Interspersed with the various plot points, an added character referred to as The Fairy Singer (beautifully voiced Marcelle Davies-Lashley) wowed the audience with songs that ranged from light jazz, to Rhythm and Blues, to a light Zydeco, breaking up sections of the play and adding to the lightness of the mood.
Dream also differs from Shakespeare’s other comedies in that it doesn’t end when all the conflicts are settled. Rather, all the resolved parties gather at the Duke’s wedding to witness the Mechanicals’ completed play. The courtiers make snide remarks about the performance, which is absolutely hysterical and played with heartbreaking sincerity. The Duke ends the festivities and tells the assembled that all is in jest and their play is “very notably discharg’d” and needs no epilog. But we get one from Puck who apologizes in a famous speech:
If we shadows have offended
Think but this and all is mended,
That you have but slumb’red here
While these visions did appear.
It’s an apt closing to this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park and an important reminder—particularly considering the political controversy that surrounded Julius Caesar, this season’s first production—that this is merely theater, meant solely as food for thought and enjoyment. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a perfectly executed, ethereal escape from the all the world’s troubles. Like the story, it’s our journey into the woods (or as much woods as we’ll get in New York City) for a chance to leave our problems behind for a few hours and, perhaps afterward, reevaluate the seriousness with which we take our precious lives.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Through August 13, presented by The Public Theater as part of their summer series Shakespeare in the Park at The Delacorte Theater (81 Central Park West, in Central Park). www.publictheater.org
Photos: Joan Marcus