Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an enchantment. When a feuding fairy king and queen, a mischievous sprite, mismatched lovers, and a farcical, amateur acting company share the stage, ardor, revenge, deception, whimsy and magic reign.
Any director must helm all this with clear point of view, however, or chaos ensues. Unfortunately, Lear deBessonet apparently has none. The four factions – fairyland, Athens’ nobles, youthful, romantic obsession, and vaudevillian shenanigans – bump against each other without cohesion. Though David Rockwell’s versatile, Arthur Rackhamish fantasy set (love the slide), and Clint Ramos’s extravagantly original costumes (inspired by, among others, Carmen Miranda, Siegfried or Roy, Esther Williams, and The Pope) are appealing, they signify nothing without empathy for the players.
Annaleigh Ashford (Helena) and Alex Hernandez (Demetrius)
For the record, I take no issue with updating the play’s look or adding punctuating, contemporary music – here, zydeco, r & b, rock, and country often sung by the flat out terrific Marcelle Davies-Lashley. (Original Music/Music Supervisor Justin Levine.) Nor, despite its getting a bit tired, do I object to the company’s goofy, signature dance number at the end.
Synopsis: Creating an atmosphere of romance, Theseus, The Duke of Athens (Bhavesh Patel) is about to wed Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (De’Adre Aziza). Hermia (Shalita Grant) and Lysander (Kyle Beltran) are in love, but the girl’s father Egeus (David Manis) insists she marry Demetrius (Alex Hernandez) who is, in turn, pursued by Helena (Annaleigh Ashford). The four young people find themselves in the Fairy Wood, some to flee, others plying suit.
Kristine Nielson (Robin/Puck) and Richard Poe (Oberon) watch Shalita Grant (Hermia) and Alex Hernandez (Demetrius)
Titania, Queen of the Fairies (Phylicia Rashad) is at odds with husband Oberon (Richard Poe) over the changeling boy she’s adopted (adorable Benjamin Ye who giggles on cue). Oberon enlists Robin Goodfellow/Puck (Kristine Nielson), to bewitch his errant wife into falling in love with the next creature she sees. That “creature” turns out to be Nick Bottom, the weaver (Danny Burstein), in the wood to rehearse a play for the wedding festivities. Robin famously changes Titania’s unwitting swain into an ass.
Ersatz play-within-the-play thespians include Peter Quince (Robert Joy), bellows mender Francis Flute (Jeff Hiller), Snout the tinker (Patrena Murray), Snug the joiner (Austin Durant) and tailor Robin Starveling, (Joe Tapper).
Patrena Murray (Snout), Robert Joy (Peter Quince), Jeff Hiller (Frances Flute), and Danny Burstein (Nick Bottom)
Also commanded to cast a spell on Dimitrius in order to bring together he and Helena, Robin mistakenly bewitches Lysander who then forsakes Hermia for Helena further complicating the caucus race.
To my mind, there are two unfathomable casting errors. The first is Kristine Nielson as a leaden Robin Goodfellow who clumps around the stage, humorlessly mugs in the yuk-yuk vein and adds not an ounce of lightheartness. The second, nightshirt-wearing fairies ranging, I’d conjecture, from 65-85 years-old who literally seem to have trouble getting up and down stairs to the proscenium. While chronological age is irrelevant, difficulty getting about is not, especially for fairies.
Richard Poe (Oberon) and Kristine Nielson (Robin/Puck)
Hearing audience members murmur that perhaps capable Shakespearean actors were few in New York come summer confirmed that my reservations about the cast were not simply from over exposure. And no, I don’t believe one has to be British. This is compounded by deBessonet’s lack of attention to characterization.
Annaleigh Ashford of whom I’m a fan, is hit or miss as Helena. Though a crowd-pleaser and often theatrically funny (especially physically), unedited excess finds her at last, just clownish. Both Ashford and Shalita Grant (Hermia) are pushed to unrestrained screeching which deBessonet appears to find amusing. The usually fine Danny Burstein (Nick Bottom) doesn’t seem to be having enough fun with the role. Kyle Beltran (Lysander) is earnest and clear. Among yeoman actors, Jeff Hiller (Frances Flute) enters querulous and plays Thisbe with evocative glee.
The stage is well and fully used as are Delacorte aisles.
An outdoor Midsummer is in itself a treat and this one was not without its pleasures. I wonder whether the audience holds The Public Theater to less high standards in Central Park.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Phylicia Rashad (Titania) and Danny Burstein (Nick Bottom)
Free Shakespeare in the Park/ The Public Theater presents
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
Directed by Lear deBessonet
Choreographed by Chase Brock
The Delacorte Theater/Central Park
Through August 13, 2017