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Kristine Nielsen: Shakespeare Should Be Edgy!

The great comedian plays Puck in this summer's highly anticipated Shakespeare in the Park production of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Kristine Nielsen returns to the Delacorte Theater for her fourth summer of Shakespeare in the Park.
(© David Gordon)

Kristine Nielsen is seriously funny. Anyone who saw her as Monica Reed in the recent Broadway revival of Noël Coward's Present Laughter (starring Kevin Kline) can attest to that. This summer, Nielsen completed her run in Present Laughter while she was already deep into rehearsal for an even more beloved British comedy: William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which starts performances this week at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

The production features an all-star cast of New York theater favorites, including Danny Burstein, Phylicia Rashad, and Annaleigh Ashford. Nielsen plays the mischievous sprite Puck, but this isn't her first time at the Delacorte. She's been returning to Shakespeare in the Park for over 30 years now: One of her first professional productions was the 1984 Public Theater production of Henry V, starring none other than her Present Laughter costar Kevin Kline. Nielsen shared some of her favorite memories from the park, as well as a few tantalizing hints about director Lear deBessonet's staging.

Kristine Nielsen starred with Kate Burton and Kevin Kline in the revival of Noël Coward's Present Laughter, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, at Broadway's St. James Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

Do you feel like you really had to shift gears as an actor to go from Present Laughter to Midsummer?
Yes, of course. Midsummer is a much more exuberant, farcical, physical comedy. And there are psychological elements in that. Dreams always have the flipside of nightmares. There's a wonderful undercurrent of that danger and death in this production. It's not just comedy. It has the effect of reminding us just how short our journeys are in this world. We have the raucous lovers and the rude mechanicals to offset that with the humor, of course, but it's always nice to see a little bit of the crescent moon.

I've heard you use the phrase "fairies of a certain age." What does that mean?
I'm sure I just sounded a bit mysterious there, but it's a polite way to say, "We're old!" The fairies are older and have lived life and have a joyful, exuberant way of looking at the young mortals. There's that famous line: "What fools these mortals be." As an older person, you look back with a certain amount of knowledge from experience.

Kristine Nielsen and Richard Poe rehearse A Midsummer Night's Dream.
(© Simon Luethi)

Have you ever played Puck?
I played Titania a hundred years ago in college. I wore a leotard and a light-up helmet. I did not ever think of Puck in this way. I was talking to Kevin Kline, who is such a Shakespearean resource. He spoke about this with Sir Ian Holm, who played Puck in the 1968 film version. Holm said, "I wish I could play Puck now. The older you are, the more you learn just how valuable and life-sustaining it is to make people laugh."

Justin Levine has composed original music for the production. Will you be singing?
Oh no, and you'll be grateful for that! But there are some other very talented people singing. Lear is from New Orleans, so it has a nice bawdy American sound, which is great.

What other shows have you performed in the Park?
I think I may be the only actress on the planet who has done Henry V twice in the Park. I did it with Kevin in 1984 and it was one of the first shows I performed in New York. I did Henry V again in 1996 with Andre Braugher. I also did As You Like It in 1992 with Elizabeth McGovern.

Elizabeth Marvel and Kristine Nielsen perform the infamous dressing scene in the 1996 Shakespeare in the Park production of Henry V.
(© Michal Daniel)

Do you have a favorite memory from those productions?
As You Like It was an Adrian Hall production, and he used live animals. I'll never forget the goat eating my hat one night. Also, the sheep jumped the fence and ran around in the park for a bit. That kind of chaos was a great atmosphere for As You Like It. The military plays are less interesting for women, although I appeared with Elizabeth Marvel in the 1996 Henry. She was playing Katherine, the French princess, and I had to dress her onstage. The wind was awfully fierce that summer. I had her dress on a dummy and it kept rolling around with the wind. It was better comedy than I could ever come up with!

Are you surprised that, following the Julius Caesar controversy, Shakespeare in the Park has become so edgy this summer?
It should be edgy! It was edgy when I first came to New York. I was here when Nixon was portrayed as the Scottish King [editor's note: Ms. Nielsen was inside a theater when giving this interview, hence her reluctance to say "Macbeth"]. Shakespeare's plays were political and edgy when he wrote them. It's important that the plays are reflective of who we are and where we are. You don't have to agree with it, but the plays and their themes really do echo through the years. Productions should be passionate and have a perspective you can respond to. You can boo it or cheer it. Either response is healthy, in my opinion.

Kristine Nielsen rehearses A Midsummer Night's Dream with director Lear deBessonet.
(© Simon Luethi)