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A Midsummer Night's Dream

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - July 31, 2017

Kyle Beltran, Annaleigh Ashford, and Alex Hernandez
Photo by Joan Marcus

To co-opt a line of lyric from Stephen Sondheim, "anything can happen in the woods." That's especially true when foolish mortals stumble into the wooded realm of Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies in Shakespeare's eternally-popular comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream, which opened tonight in a joyful, crowd-pleasing Mardi Gras of a production at the Public Theater's Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

After the political fallout that accompanied the Public's Julius Caesar at the Delacorte earlier this summer, what a pleasure it is to be able to spend an evening under the stars in the company of performers who most assuredly were advised by director Lear deBessonet to "have fun with it." And "fun" is the operant word here. Even if some of the slapstick and mugging can seem a bit much at times, only a genuine curmudgeon or Shakespeare absolutist is likely to be able to resist the spell of this most gleeful of productions.

Of the cast (a trove of riches, including one who makes a virtue out of being miscast, of which more later), no one has embraced the call for merriment more than Annaleigh Ashford. As the lovesick Helena, she has a field day leading the chase through the enchanted woods. (Quick summary: Helena loves Demetrius who loves Hermia who loves Lysander. They pursue each other through the woods until, with the assist of some fairy magic, everything is sorted out in the end).

As she has demonstrated previously in such fare as You Can't Take It With You and Sylvia, Ashford is a gloriously physical comedian who embraces quirky roles, the more off-the-wall the better. Here she is the embodiment of what it means to "cavort," whether it's leaping onto her erstwhile lover Demetrius (Alex Hernandez), throwing a tantrum, climbing trees, or whipping down a sliding board. What does it matter if her performance is over-the-top; she is so divinely winsome that resistance is futile. Hernandez and the others—Kyle Beltran as Lysander and Shalita Grant as Hermia—are excellent, as well, in rounding out the quartet. Ms. Grant does particularly well at maintaining the level of her performance at just this side of bursting out of the box; she could just as readily have played Helena without missing a beat.

Meanwhile, there are those secondary characters referred to as the "rude mechanicals," whose preparations for a performance of the play-within-the-play, "Pyramus and Thisby," add another layer of delight to the evening. In the hands of the splendid troupe of actors, they are as pleasurable to watch as the main event. Robert Joy is the carpenter Peter Quince, who presides as best he can over his coterie of amateur actors: Flute, the bellows mender (Jeff Hiller, who hilariously embraces his inner drag queen as Thisby); Snout, the tinker (Patrena Murray, who, playing a wall, draws laughter from a posture shift); Snug the joiner (Austin Durant, quiet until he discovers the lion within); Robin Starveling the tailor (Joe Tapper, whose character takes great pride in representing the moon). And last, but hardly least, there is Nick Bottom, the weaver, portrayed with all of his self-importance, foolishness, and generosity of spirit by Danny Burstein.

As an actor, Burstein is a true ensemble player, and he makes for a marvelous Nick Bottom, especially after his character has been transformed into an ass for the amusement of the fairy king (who knew that Burstein was such an adroit brayer?), but also as the self-aggrandizing thespian who views himself as the epitome of acting in taking on the role of Pyramus. I don't know if he does this every evening, but at the performance I attended, some dark clouds moved in threateningly overhead just as Nick Bottom has the line, "I will move storms!" Burstein raised his arms to the skies and used the line to great effect, as the clouds retreated.

Getting back to that one seemingly miscast role, that would be Kristine Nielsen as Puck. A wonderful actress with great comic timing is Ms. Nielsen (among her roles, Sonia in Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike)), but she's not among the first group of individuals you'd think of for playing Shakespeare's mischievous sprite. So when she first appears in a pair of striped pajamas, looking rather like a great stuffed teddy bear, the effect is disorienting. Even the look on her face suggests that she, too, is bemused as to how she got there. It doesn't help that she has little to do for a while but sigh, roll her eyes, and resort to the lowest of comedy bits (a whoopee cushion, if you please) while biding her time. But, you know, like everything about this special evening, somewhere down the line the fairy dust takes hold, and she becomes Puck. By the time she offers straight-out readings of some of Shakespeare's lovely lines, the transformation is complete.

That's the sort of magic that pervades this production, which also features wonderfully-imagined performances by Richard Poe as King Oberon and Phylicia Rashad as Queen Titania, Bhavesh Patel as the Duke of Athens, and De'Adre Aziza as the self-assured Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. But, as they say in the infomercials: Wait. There's more.

The thoughtfully diverse casting includes a delightful coterie of fairies portrayed by actors well beyond traditional retirement age (how nice it is to realize there is more than 80 years' difference in age between the youngest and oldest actor onstage). There also are the scrumptious Carnival-inspired costumes by Clint Ramos; David Rockwell's set design that is suggestive of how Louisiana's cypress trees might look growing in a fairy forest; Chase Brock's lovely choreography; and some great accompanying New Orleans jazz and zydeco music performed under Jon Spurney's direction from a bandstand perched in the trees, with original music and orchestrations by Justin Levine. As if this weren't enough, the icing on the King Cake comes in the form of several brassy numbers performed front and center by the equally brassy singer Marcelle Davies-Lashley. All told, it's hard to imagine a more pleasing antidote to political malaise than this stellar production by the Public, a real treasure of A Midsummer Night's Dream in an ideal setting.

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Through August 13
The Delacorte Theater in Central Park
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