A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Silly Slapstick Shakespeare in the Park
Shakespeare in the Park is one of the true joys of being in New York City in the hot summer. Last month, we were gifted with the glorious Julius Caesar, and regardless of your political persuasion, it was a thrilling night of theatre, even with the protesters yelling their silliness in the background. I must admit, though, that another production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream didn’t excite me that much initially. It’s a beautiful lovely play that is over-done in outdoor theaters across the nation and beyond. It’s overly long, in my mind, and once the weddings take place, it should end, like the rest of Shakespeare comedies do. But all that changed when I saw the casting notices.
Seeing the names of Kristine Nielsen and Annaleigh Ashford attached to the production altered it all. Both amazingly funny ladies, and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare, these two should help create a wildly funny and exciting night at the sublime Delacorte Theater in Central Park. As directed by Lear deBessonet (Encores!’s Big River), the production showcasing a proclivity for slapstick humor, mostly works in a funny charming manner. It has an identity problem, though, that doesn’t quite know what kind of show this lot is putting on. Mostly hilariously orchestrated, there are also many moments that are played too seriously or too regally to fit in together well. Lots of choices of casting and style are questionable, although brave for the most part, with some of the ideas working. And others not quite hitting the sweet spot.
The most surprising is Nielsen’s Puck. She was the one I was most excited about. The casting of her as the sprite seemed like a genius move. Anyone who saw her in last season’s Present Laughter had to believe that her Puck would be deliciously wacky and fun to watch, as the wicked Puck creates so much commotion in the forest for the four lovers and the fairy queen, Titania, who is beautifully played by the elegant and always regal Phylicia Rashad (Public’s Head of Passes).
Nielsen has the gift of being able to wring a laugh out of almost anything. This ability is approaching legendary, as seen in her tremendously funny and authentic performances in HIR and Vanya and Sonya and Marsha and Spike. For that role, she was nominated for a Tony Award (but didn’t win, much to my surprise both then and now!), but here under the stars, given the mischievous Puck to portray, Nielsen falters surprisingly. She finds herself mugging and shrugging her way through the moments on stage with her fairy king, Oberon, played with charm and regality by Richard Poe (Public’s Why Torture is Wrong).
It really is the battle between Oberon and Titania that drives Puck forward into the mischief she creates. There isn’t enough heaviness in this dispute though, with Nielsen’s Puck making it all a big silly joke rather then mischief in it’s essence. It doesn’t really add up to much in the end, playing far too broadly with gags and joke-shop props. Her silliness feels forced and out of place in the wildly uneven performance she gives, although she almost rescues herself in the last ten minutes with lovingly spoken monologues that wrap this play up. Director deBessonet let Nielsen ride too easily on her trademark quirkiness while ignoring the Puck’s darkness. It appears that Nielsen needs a strong arm and a clearer vision to guide her through from beginning to end.
Ashford (Sunday in the Park with George, Sylvia) on the other hand, although not the Helena one would imagine straight away, is absolutely pitch perfect and hysterical as the young lady desperately in love with Demetrius, played with a handsome strong charm by the always excellent Alex Hernandez (Kingdom Come). Her physical humor and silliness is nowhere near realistic, as was her spectacular portrayal of a terrible ballerina in You Can’t Take It With You. She won a Tony Award for that fun portrayal, but realism is not what this production is going for. Her campy fawning and adoration of the sexy Demetrius is wildly out of control, but has a core of authenticity that makes it sing. The other lady lover, Hermia, portrayed by the delicious Shalita Grant (Tony nominated for Vanya and Sonya and Marsha and Spike) needs to up her game a little as Ashford clearly steals the show away from the other young lovers. Kyle Beltran (The Flick) matches Hernandez well in charm and spunk, but is most definitely on Grant’s level rather than Ashford’s in the humor department. Not that this was a competition, as Helena definitely has the more hilariously written part. But if it was…., we know who would be taking home the Gold.
The other surprise of the night, mainly because I had no idea when I arrived in Central Park, was that the amazing Danny Burstein (Fiddler on the Roof, Follies) would be playing the ham of all hams, Nick Bottom. What a delightful surprise to see him make his entrance, along side the wonderfully funny ‘Mechanicals’ that make up the troupe of terrible amateur actors that go to the woods to rehearse a play, “the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe”. Robert Joy as Peter Quince, Jeff Hiller as Francis Flute, Patrena Murray as Snout, Austin Durant as Snug, and Joe Tapper as Robin Starveling are all quirky and hilarious, having the time of their lives being terrible and brilliant all at the same time. Hiller (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) is especially clever and jocular. He’s a marvel dressed in drag for the performance of their play for the wedding party of Theseus (Bhavesh Patel), the Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta (De’Adre Aziza), Queen of the Amazons.
If this was like most of the other Shakespeare comedies, the play would usually end with the wedding. This time there are three, but they in no way signal that the Dream has ended. I am forever surprised at that moment in the play, that we still have the play within the play to be performed by the ‘Mechanicals’. Usually, as it was with the gloriously beautiful and artistically stunning production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Julie Taymor at TFANA a few years ago, when the weddings were over, I was ready for the show to wrap up and for me to head out into the night. I begrudgingly sat through the ridiculousness of story of Pyramus and Thisbe squirming to get out. This time, the gloriousness of the actor troupe made me excited to see their entertainment for the newly wedded couples. And it did not disappoint, as the play was performed with a droll and ridiculously silly edge by these amateur thespians leading us through a lovely and silly romantic tale of love and tragedy. This time, I was happy to hang out a wee bit longer.
The ending still sits within a dark circle around the idea of love. Regardless of the slapstick that brought about this happy ending, Hippolyta and Theseus are happily in love as they always were, married and celebrating while watching a play about the unfortunate lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe. Helena and Demetrius are there too, toasting champagne to love and marriage, but the love they toast is not as real as the others. The two seem oblivious to the dark magic of their altered love, completely unaware that Puck has played a trick on their devotion. But Helena is pretty high-kicking happy (festive choreography by Chase Brock), as we are for her, so I guess all can be forgiven. As Puck asks us at the end, “And this weak and idle theme, No more yielding but a dream, Gentles do not reprehend. If you pardon, we will mend”.
Central Park and the Delacorte is such a beautiful setting for A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be staged within. The set design by David Rockwell, with lighting by Tyler Micoleau work marvelously in the space, although I found the costumes by Clint Ramos to be a bit over the top and distracting. Especially for the Duke and his betrothed, Hippolyta, who looked like garish versions of pop stars prancing down a fashion runway (spectacular wig & makeup design by Cookie Jordan). Those two characters seem to be in a whole different universe than the one where the lovers reside. Hippolyta seems to be in battle for control, while not liking the Duke all that much. What are they trying to say there about love and marriage?
They are by far the least interesting of the group, strutting around the stage like Beyonce and friend. They held as much interest as the decision to cast the fairies as adults of a certain age. It doesn’t distract but it also doesn’t seem to enhance the scenarios. Same with the live music (original music, music supervisor, orchestrations: Justin Levine) and the fairy singer, Marcelle Davies-Lashley. Her song to put the Queen Fairy to sleep is simple astounding, expressively sung with a strong killer voice and amazing style, but that number would only rile me up, not put me to sleep. There is nothing drowsy about that song. Glorious and well performed, the jazz styling of Davies-Lashley feels out of place as if it was coming from another different version of the play. More like A Midsummer Night’s Dreamgirls.
The additions don’t add or subtract from the play, but the construction needs a tighter vision and a much clearer eye. What feels like four different productions; the slapstick lovers with a woopie cushioned Puck, the regal fairyland of elders with child, the jazzy dream girl with a song to sing, and Beyonce’s forced marriage to a Duke, needs to figure out where to lay its sleepy head, and stick with it. Although the four variations on a theme make the evening very entertaining, it’s a bit schizophrenic, regardless of the Shakespeare being performed. Where are the protesters for that? They are too busy laughing themselves silly.