A Midsummer Night's Dream
Shakespeare in the Park treats its audience to a fresh take on an old favorite.
The duke is bored. He asks his master of the revels, "Is there no play to ease the anguish of a torturing hour?" We in the audience at the Delacorte Theater know that there is, and that he's in it. The Shakespeare in the Park production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is the most fascinating, heartfelt, thoroughly entertaining attraction playing in New York this summer.
It's hard to go wrong with Midsummer, Shakespeare's most beloved and fantastical comedy. The Public Theater and director Lear deBessonet emphasize magic and mirth in this vibrant production, set in and around the Athenian wood.
Duke Theseus (Bhavesh Patel) is preparing to wed the Amazon Queen, Hippolyta (De'Adre Aziza), but a troublesome love quadrangle threatens to disturb their nuptials: Lysander (Kyle Beltran) is in love with Hermia (Shalita Grant), but her father (David Manis) has promised her hand to Demetrius (Alex Hernandez). This doesn't sit well with Helena (Annaleigh Ashford), who showers Demetrius in unrequited love. Fairy King Oberon (Richard Poe) instructs his servant Robin Goodfellow (the mischievous Kristine Nielsen) to sprinkle an enchanted juice on the eyes of sleeping Demetrius to make him fall in love with Helena. He also wants to play a trick on his Queen, Titania (Phylicia Rashad), who refuses to give up a changeling boy (Benjamin Ye) that he covets as his henchman. Naturally, wires get crossed and further hijinks ensue.
Meanwhile, a troupe of rude mechanicals (Robert Joy, Danny Burstein, Jeff Hiller, Patrena Murray, Austin Durant, and Joe Tapper) prepares a "tedious and brief tragical mirth" about the lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe, to perform for the Duke and his new bride. Midsummer is a rom-com wrapped in a fantasy garnished with a backstager. In essence, it's in the most wonderful evening of Shakespeare one could possibly hope to have.
Adding to the enjoyment of an already great play are uniformly excellent performances from the cast: Burstein is magnificent as the hamtastic actor Nick Bottom, playing every line to the crowd. Rashad manages to maintain her regal presence even in the most ridiculous of circumstances, making each of her scenes all the more hilarious.
All four lovers deliver kinetic performances, with Ashford (as ever) stealing her scenes with her gleefully artificial line readings. The physical comedy is cranked up to a ten: When Ashford and Grant put up their dukes and dance around the stage in preparation for an epic catfight, it conjures memories of Lucille Ball and Teresa Tirelli in a grape vat.
One of the joys of this production is seeing how rich the individual characters can become: We get the sense that Hiller's Francis Flute has embarked on a life-changing personal journey through his drag performance as Thisbe (delightfully busted wig and makeup by Cookie Jordan). Similarly, Patel's lusty portrayal of Theseus reveals the raw passion he has for Hippolyta, who Aziza endows with the majesty of Beyoncé and the runway stomp of Tyra Banks. We can envision an entire play just about their courtship.
Costume designer Clint Ramos outfits the stunning Amazonian in an array of couture gowns and headpieces, including one that impressively riffs on Beyoncé's outfit at the 2017 Grammy Awards. Ramos's Athens is a cosmopolitan place of flashy synthetic fabrics. We recognize elements and styles, but we've never seen them synthesized in quite this way. It's the fashion equivalent of having a dream that features two people from very different aspects of your life.
The fairies prance through the woods in their nightclothes, with Oberon wearing a housecoat that looks like it belongs to Liberace. As imagined by deBessonet, all the fairies are elder humans: They dance in the PJs, like nursing home residents in a Zumba class (simple and joyous choreography by Chase Brock). Occasionally, one shuffles across the upstage area as if looking for something. Is this their dream? Are we just figments of their imagination? Nothing is ever fully explained, adding to the wonder of this sweltering summer hallucination.
Composer Justin Levine underscores it all with a soulful American sound. "Fairy singer" Marcelle Davies-Lashley and the band fill the stage with music from their tree house perch (one of many whimsical touches by set designer David Rockwell, who even includes a slide entrance stage right). The dance-in-your-seat number "Wake Me Up When Summer's Here" is particularly memorable and ought to be adopted by the Public as the theme song for Shakespeare in the Park.
Two-and-a-half hours melt away like a particularly pleasant dream, one from which you feel slightly sad to wake. It's the perfect way to wrap up a summer of Shakespeare in the Park that has been at times controversial, riotous, and completely riveting.