Photo credit: Joan Marcus
By Shari Lifland (@shariontheaisle)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream just may be the perfect selection for an evening under the stars at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, a pastoral haven secreted deep within one of the most urban places on earth. While scoring a ticket to any Shakespeare in the Park performance is a highly coveted New York City delight, this particular production provides an especially enchanting experience: it’s like watching a dream from within a dream. Under a waxing moon, with the majestic Belvedere Castle as backdrop, the Park takes on an otherworldly, dreamlike atmosphere. Shakespeare’s play is, after all, as advertised in the title: a dream. Moments before the final curtain, as we prepare to take our leave and return to the workaday world, the fairy Puck reminds us: “You have but slumber’d here while these visions did appear. And this weak and idle theme, no more yielding but a dream.”
The Public Theater’s mission is to make great theatre accessible and relevant to everyone, and it consistently and brilliantly succeeds without in any way “dumbing down” the classic works it presents. Its current production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a shining example. Thanks to the light hand of The Public’s Resident Director Lear deBessonet, remarkably creative and vibrant costumes by Clint Ramos, stunningly original sets by David Rockwell that transform the Park into an enchanted forest (the audience actually applauded a mid-act scenery change), original, upbeat, New Orleans-style music by Justin Levine, bluesy vocals by Marcelle Davies-Lashley, and a first-rate cast of veteran New York City actors, this Dream is a thoroughly delightful, engaging, and often uproarious romp that enables the audience to follow (and delight in) its confusing, farcical plot. No previous Shakespearean scholarship is required.
deBessonet asserts her point of view from the first moment, when the confidently sexy, soon-to-be-wed nobles Theseus, Duke of Athens (Bhavesh Patel) and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (de’Adre Aziza) make their dramatic entrance. Clad in hot, shimmering colors, they joyfully boogie onto the stage to a jazzy beat. Theseus and Hippolyta serve as bookends in Shakespeare’s play, appearing only in the first and final scenes. They represent the real, waking world, while the rest of the play takes place within a dream.
The action boils down to three plots:
- Hermia and Lysander (Shalita Grant and Kyle Beltran) are in love and desperately want to wed, but Hermia’s father Egeus (David Manis) is set on her marrying Demetrius (Alex Hernandez), whom Helena (Annaleigh Ashford) loves.
- A group of Athenian craftsmen comically rehearse a play they hope to perform at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta.
- Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of the fairies (Phylicia Rashad and Richard Poe), quarrel because she refuses to give up her hold on a young boy she is raising as her adopted son.
The themes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be summed up in two of the play’s most famous lines:
“The course of true love never did run smooth” and
“Lord, what fools these mortals be.”
Thanks to much confusion involving a magic elixir from a flower once pierced by Cupid’s arrow (it causes the person upon whose eyes it is applied to fall madly in love with the first creature he/she sees upon wakening), misunderstandings and misplaced affections abound. Several characters (both human and fairy) awake to inappropriate objects of desire, a plot device that guarantees a rough road to true love (see first quote). And because mortals (and sometimes, fairies) cannot help acting like fools (see second quote), things go terribly wrong before they can be finally be set right.
While everyone in the company does a terrific job, several cast members deserve special shout outs, most notably the effervescent, incandescent, comic genius (and Tony Award-winner) Annaleigh Ashford, whose talent for physical comedy matches that of Lucille Ball. Ashford throws herself on the floor, attaches herself to Demetrius’s leg as he struggles to get away from her, and manages to be both adorable and hysterical at the same time. As the pompous Nick Bottom, (who, typical actor, believes he can play any and every part in the craftsmen’s play), Broadway veteran Danny Burstein creates a rapport with the audience that keeps his character from being too much of an ass, even as the fairy Puck uses magic to transform Bottom into an actual donkey. As Robin Goodfellow (Puck), “that merry wanderer of the night,” Broadway favorite Kristine Nielsen, dressed in baggy pajamas and wearing a pageboy wig, charmingly mugs and bumbles her way through the action. Her bright eyes flashing with mischief, she steals the show every time she takes the stage. Regal Richard Roe, as Oberon, and the supernaturally gorgeous Phylicia Rashad, as Titania, both regal in stunning white robes accented in sequins, literally sparkle as the fairy King and Queen. (Their subjects, however, dressed in what appear to be white nightgowns, resemble escapees from an old age home).
At the end of the play, the Delacorte audience, along with Theseus and Hippolyta and the two young couples Hermia/Lysander and Helena/Demetrius (each now reunited with his/her intended significant other), becomes the audience for the Athenian craftsman’s clumsy, but well-intentioned play. The entire cast takes the stage to celebrate, dancing to a Zydeco beat in a manner suggesting a New Orleans second line. Marcelle Davies-Lashley, a singer of exceptional talent and feeling, underscores the joy, singing “Wake Me up When Summer’s Here.” To quote another Shakespearean work, “All’s well that ends well.”
In a program note to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Public’s Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis, writes: “Like love, the theater brings us together to share what makes us human, and to make us feel less alone.”
The opportunity to experience thoughtfully, beautifully staged theater, under a stunning New York night sky, and to share that joy with one’s fellow man (and woman), is a truly uplifting experience. Somehow, watching a play about love’s travails and our own mortal shortcomings, can, as Mr. Eustis states, make us feel less alone.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at the Delacorte Theater through August 13. For ticket information: www.publictheater.org
Shari Lifland is a New York City-area writer who loves being in the room where it happens–on or Off Broadway.