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A Midsummer Night's Dream

Daniel Sullivan's feisty production of Shakespeare's spellbinding comedy casts its own late summer spell.

By New York City
Keith David, Laila Robins, and Jay O. Sanders
in A Midsummer Night's Dream
(© Michal Daniel)
Keith David, Laila Robins, and Jay O. Sanders
in A Midsummer Night's Dream
(© Michal Daniel)
More than in any other Shakespeare play, the primary action of A Midsummer Night's Dream serves as a stage direction. Looking to make a little mischief, Oberon casts spells on paramour Titania and on the four Athenian lovers who flee to the woods to pursue the object of their affection. In the spell-casting, the Bard implicitly suggests that a director must cast his own spell for the play to achieve maximum effect, which Daniel Sullivan does with his feisty Midsummer at the Delacorte, the second offering of the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park

Since theater is a collaborative effort, directors traditionally have a corps of helpers -- primarily actors -- who involve themselves in the spell-binding. Keith David, in what appears to be silver face, has the called-for imperious presence and regal delivery for Oberon. His Titania is the stunning Laila Robins, who initially radiates the menace of an evil stepmother, but when enamored of Bottom (the lovably bombastic Jay O. Sanders) in his donkey guise is all girlish sexual appetite.

Best of the four lovers, who further illustrate the Bard's point that love can often be maddeningly arbitrary, is Martha Plimpton as the frustrated Helena. She shoots darts from her mouth and steam from her ears, and steals whatever scene she's in with her customary authoritative way. (Is there any role she can't master?) Mirielle Enos as Hermia, Austin Lysy as Lysander, and Elliot Villar as Demetrius have sufficient beguiling powers and stamina to keep their cross-purposes raucous. Their rambunctious behavior is particularly hilarious when the foursome gets to the volatile scene where the bewitched men switch their amorous attentions from Hermia to Helena. If anything is a drawback with this quartet, it's that they're slow in finding the music under Shakespeare's words. The same goes for Daniel Oreskes as autocratic Theseus and Opal Alladin as his bride-to-be Hippolyta, though they're eventually good enough.

Sullivan's revival is dotted with other delightful performances, the most adorable being Jesse Tyler Ferguson's as Flute. Looking like a carrot-topped noodle, he gets to rehearse and play Thisby in the play-within-a-play, and in the process reaps the night's biggest laugh. Accompanying him as other rustics, Tim Blake Nelson and Jason Antoon hike the energy quotient.

Adding to the gaiety are Jon Michael Hill as Puck and Chelsea Bacon as First Fairy, who sometimes hangs upside down with her ankles twisted in a thick rope. The other fairies are played by children -- Simon Garratt, Erica Huang, Cassady Leonard, Lily Maketansky, Lina Silver, Jack Tartaglia -- and in their Victorian kids togs, they are cute as bachelor buttons.

For this team effort, everyone pitches in, including magic consultant Mark Mitton, who augments Puck's bag of tricks. Composer Dan Moses Schreier and Acme Sound Partners contribute the most persuasive complimentary elements, although the sung closing Schreier has made of Puck's salutary curtain comments is delivered in disorientingly flat tones by the eager ensemble. Lighting designer Michael Chybowski arranges some nifty effects, especially following the request to "overcast the night," which elicited some nice aahs from the attentive crowd.

Ann Hould-Ward's costumes can be colorful and pretty, but they're also puzzling in some cases. Why, for instance, is Hermia's stern dad Egeus (George Morfogen) gotten up to look like a Muslim nun? And set designer Eugene Lee, normally reliable as a Swiss watch, has placed a single fat-trunked tree upstage center -- presumably at Sullivan's request -- and pretty much left it at that. It's not the most attractive sight when behind the stage Central Park rises gloriously.

Sullivan has also dreamed up a number of additional surprises, generously handing audience members their money's worth, even though they're watching for free. Yet, because of the actors' slowness to hear the melodies beneath Shakespeare's often luscious poetry, this isn't the finest realization ever of the comedy. Still, it definitely casts its late summer spell.


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