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A CurtainUp Review
A Midsummer Night's Dream

"Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Annaleigh Ashford and Alex Hernandez (Photo: Joan Marcus)
"Please turn off your cellphones," the Delacorte ushers asked as the audience settled in for A Midsummer Night's Dream, "and no photography or video recording of any kind." While hardly unusual, the announcement nonetheless prompted an audible, knowing murmur from the crowd.

It seemed inevitable that the national controversy surrounding leaked video footage from this summer's Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, however overblown, would cast some shadow over the show to follow. But, miraculously, memories of Caesar-gate fade quickly following an opening message from Oskar Eustis (which has been re-recorded with new language emphasizing the importance of free expression). Before long, the magical combination of one of Shakespeare's best plays, an inventive staging by director Lear deBessonet, and a charming ensemble cast transports us from one midsummer night to a far more fantastical one.

That this piece of escapist fare was chosen to follow Caesar is hardly an accident: Eustis has said that the two were chosen together to offer a warning about the current moment and then a "life-affirming and hope-generating and optimistic" story as a counterpoint. Whether or not you experienced his Caesar this summer, he's got a point. The joyous fantasy of Midsummer really does feel most welcome, even therapeutic, in the midst of today's particularly chaotic world.

deBessonet's vision is hardly a traditional one, enlisting modern dress and incorporating brassy music suggesting a New Orleans flavor, yet by today's conventions of staging Shakespeare arguably shows restraint. The setting feels more removed from time than contemporary and the language is mostly untouched, with the exception of new songs from a Fairy Singer (Marcelle Davies-Lashley) that usually come between scenes.

This makes for a smart approach, accentuating the surreal elements of the play and heightening its humor. If Caesar showed the timeliness of Shakespeare's work, this production powerfully demonstrates its timelessness.

At the literal center of the play is the shifting magnetism and repulsion between the four young lovers—Hermia (Shalita Grant), Lysander (Kyle Beltran), Helena (Annaleigh Ashford), and Demetrius (Alex Hernandez)—that comes to a head in a farcical bonanza of physical and emotional energy just before the intermission.

Grant and Ashford display their strong comedic chops in realizing the joy, confusion, and sorrow their characters experience, often inversely to one another. For Beltran and Hernandez, the assured masculinity of their rival characters becomes a source of absurdity as they become puppets of fairy magic.

A true ensemble effort, this Midsummer handily splits attention between this love quadrangle and the play's other lovers' quarrel, between the fairy king Oberon (an imposing Richard Poe) and queen Titania (Phylicia Rashad, whose aura remains dignified even as her character endures Oberon's indignities). While the mortals engage in their heated dispute, Oberon and Titania confront each other with iciness. The young lovers move quickly and impetuously, while the older fairies are more subtle and considerate in their attacks.

Supporting Rashad and Poe in the fairy realm are Vinie Burrows as Peaseblossom and Kristine Nielsen as Puck. Burrows endows her role with a strong protective air, making a greater impact than the role is sometimes capable of leaving. Nielsen's Puck is spritely and gleefully mischievous—traits that can often make the Puck character seem hammy. Yet here these are balanced and offset with an occasional air of seriousness and worldliness, an effect deBessonet replicates across the cast of fairies by employing older actors than would typically play these roles.

The last major thread of the play involves the amateur actors preparing to perform the story of Pyramus and Thisbe for Theseus (Bhavesh Patel) and Hippolyta (De'adre Aziza)—imagined here as a Beyonce and Jay-Z-esque celebrity power couple—on their wedding day.

Robert Joy's Peter Quince could be mistaken for Woody Allen, while Danny Burstein plays Nick Bottom as clueless and misguided as ever but with a surprising tinge of hesitation that engenders more sympathy than one might expect to feel for the play's resident ass. The cast of mechanicals is soundly rounded out by Jeff Hiller, Patrena Murray, Austin Durant, and Joe Tapper, all strong character actors who use their careful comic timing and physicality to highly amusing effect.

All of this takes place in a sparking woodland designed by David Rockwell, and the bright, rich hues of the set as well as Clint Ramos's costumes recall the polychromatic production of She Loves Me that Rockwell worked on at Roundabout last year. The resplendent aesthetics further resonate in lighting by Tyler Micoleau, and are rounded out with Cookie Jordan's hair, wig, and makeup design.

And speaking of sets and settings, there is something to be said for the opportunity to sit outside on a midsummer night amongst the trees of Central Park watching the action of A Midsummer Night's Dream unfolding in the Athenian woods. It's a perfect way to experience this delightful, diverting production of one of Shakespeare's most treasured works.

Around 10 pm on the night I attended, planes en route to LaGuardia started flying over the theater every five to ten minutes. I expected to find this distracting, but was surprisingly undisturbed. Even in the same city, I was worlds away.

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A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare
Choreography by Chase Brock
Directed by Lear deBessonet
with Annaleigh Ashford (Helena), De'Adre Aziza (Hippolyta), Kyle Beltran (Lysander), Vinie Burrows (First Fairy, Peaseblossom), Danny Burstein (Nick Bottom), Justin Cunningham (Philostrate), Marcelle Davies-Lashley (Fairy Singer), Austin Durant (Snug), Shalita Grant (Hermia), Keith Hart (Third Fairy), Alex Hernandez (Demetrius), Jeff Hiller (Francis Flute), Robert Joy (Peter Quince), Patricia Lewis (Fourth Fairy), David Manis (Egeus, Cobweb), Pamela McPherson-Cornelius (Second Fairy), Patrena Murray (Snout), Kristine Nielsen (Puck), Bhavesh Patel (Theseus), Richard Poe (Oberon), Phylicia Rashad (Titania), Joe Tapper (Robin Starveling), Judith Wagner (Mote), Warren Wyss (Mustardseed), and Benjamin Ye (Changeling Boy)
Scenic Design: David Rockwell
Costume Design: Clint Ramos
Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau
Sound Design: Jessica Paz
Hair, Wig, and Make-up Design: Cookie Jordan
Original Music, Music Supervisor, and Orchestrations: Justin Levine
Additional Orchestrations: Charlie Rosen
Music Contractor: Dean Sharenow
Music Director: Jon Spurney
Production Stage Manager: Rick Steiger
Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with an intermission
Presented by the Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park (enter at West 81st Street or East 79th Street)
Tickets: Free tickets are distributed each day beginning at noon at the Delacorte, at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place), and by TodayTix digital lottery. Tickets are also distributed in the boroughs on select dates. See for more information.
From 7/11/2017; opened 7/31/2017; closing 8/13/2017
Performance times: Nightly at 8 pm. No shows on Sundays, July 16, 23, or 30; Friday, August 4; or Monday, August 7.
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 7/26/2017 performance

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