Kyle Beltran, Annaleigh Ashford, and Alex Hernandez in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)
By Samuel L. Leiter
There’s no better place to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream than on a lovely summer night in Central Park. And, while Lear DeBessonet’s colorful version for the Public Theater may not fully capture the play’s romantic lyricism or its magical allure, it largely makes up for those drawbacks in its infectious exuberance and joie de vivre.
This Dream is set in an enchanted, Louisiana-like bayou (DeBessonet is from Baton Rouge), with David Rockwell’s decor showing thick trees—placed on separate revolves—drooping with reams of Spanish Moss; one includes a halved trunk that serves for sliding pond entrances. Tyler Micoleau’s lighting palette brilliantly enhances the graceful vista.
Also memorable is the swinging, six-player, New Orleans-style jazz band set aloft in its own pavilion, playing a score by Justin Levine that deserves to be heard after the show closes. DeBessonet’s conception, in fact, is reminiscent of 1939’s Swingin’ the Dream, a jazz-based, African-American interpretation that faded after only 13 performances despite a cast featuring Louis Armstrong as Bottom and Butterfly McQueen as Puck, with music by Armstrong and Benny Goodman.
Several excellent songs in the new Dream are powerfully sung by the striking Marcelle Davies-Lashley, playing the “Fairy Singer” in the shimmering gold fringes of a cabaret artiste. Levine’s rousing music, with uncredited lyrics, accompanies much of the action and supports the vibrant choreography of Chase Brock.
DeBessonet stresses the play’s comedic values over its poetic ones, but the payoff is inconsistent, mainly because, despite her numerous creative touches, too much of the humor is forced rather than organic. Having Puck fart loudly is a tiny example. The humor is invariably of the physical variety, reflecting Puck’s observation, “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”
The problem is that some of the otherwise talented performers aren’t natural clowns (which is different from being comic actors). As a result, they tend to shove their performances into mugging and over-the-top shtick. This is particularly true of the ridiculously juvenile “Pyramus and Thisbe” scene. With the four lovers being nearly as vocally and physically overstated, the play’s balance of lyricism and laughter is undone; occasional applause for these broad antics just proves “chacun à son gout.”
This isn’t to deny many of the show’s great pleasures, like Clint Ramos’s costumes, which run the gamut from the ordinary to the extraordinary. The regal Athenians wear boldly colored satins suggesting theatricalized hipsters, including the decorative feathers in their rakish hats, with Theseus (Bhavesh Patel) and Hippolyta (De’Adre Aziza) donning the most outlandish versions; later, the royal pair goes hunting in shiny gold camo.
The fairies, conceived as elderly men and women, wear white pajamas, suggesting the residents of a nursing home (88-year-old Vinie Burrows makes a delightful Peaseblossom); Titania (Phylicia Rashad) is exquisite in her elaborate peignoir and silver wig, and the stately Oberon (Richard Poe) looks regal in his white on white silk robe over white PJs.
Puck (Kristine Nielsen), also far older than usual for her role, wears pinstriped PJs and a pageboy bob with short bangs; she switches to black jacket and pants for the visually sumptuous wedding scene, costumed as a fancy 1920s soiree. When the statuesque Hippolyta—smartly affecting a comical condescension toward Theseus—appears in this scene, wearing an elaborate headdress, she seems to have stepped straight out of the Follies.
Less imaginatively, the mechanicals, led by Robert Joy’s nicely punctilious Peter Quince, wear realistic work clothes and tool belts, almost a convention in modern-dress revivals. Bottom’s “translation” into an ass is evoked by elements worn with his t-shirt and shorts: a fur headdress showing his face, hoof-like gloves and boots, and a tail.
Although her actors make no Bardic breakthroughs, DeBessonet elicits a clear storyline and well-spoken, understandable language. Among the leads, Danny Burstein is a charming but imperfect Bottom, his personal cleverness too apparent when playing the character’s foolishness; he has some terrific moments but when he plays Pyramus he overacts the overacting. Annaleigh Ashford’s supremely ditzy Helena, an audience favorite, similarly teeters between sincerity and staginess. Alex Hernandez, on the other hand, a superbly athletic Demetrius, somehow remains consistently grounded despite his hyperbolic antics.
The idea of casting the lovably puckish Kristine Nielsen as Puck must have seemed brilliant on paper but the effect is mainly to draw attention to its unconventionality. Nielsen’s familiar business of reacting comically by quivering her eyes and hands, which can be hilarious in the right circumstances, sometimes seems a device to get laughs not available any other way; it’s reminiscent of old-time comedian Hugh Herbert (Snout in Reinhardt’s 1935 movie of the Dream) fluttering his hands and saying “hoo-hoo-hoo, wonderful, wonderful, hoo-hoo-hoo!” whenever he was flustered.
Puck herself, of course, dismisses potentially critical thoughts by reminding us, as the play closes, that we’ve “but slumbered here,” and what we’ve seen has, after all, been “but a dream.” And a swingin’ dream at that.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Central Park at W. 81st St., NYC
Through August 13
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).