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Don’t expect to see any protestors at the Public Theater’s second free offering in Central Park this summer. Unlike the provocative production of Julius Caesar that imagined its title character as a Donald Trump clone, Lear deBessonet’s staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a delightfully frothy theatrical palate cleanser that will prove a balm to theatergoers weary of controversy.
The director brings to her version of Shakespeare’s early comedy much of the same sensibility that marked her Public Works productions, including The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale. She infuses the proceedings with a madcap, musical-theater atmosphere, heightened not only by Justin Levine’s bouncy original score incorporating New Orleans jazz, blues and zydeco, among other styles, but also by the presence of two talented Broadway musical veterans in leading roles: Annaleigh Ashford (Sunday in the Park With George, Kinky Boots) as Helena and Danny Burstein (Fiddler on the Roof, South Pacific) as Bottom.
Many productions have explored the fantastical play’s darker subtexts concerning the vagaries of love. That’s not the case with this rendition, which delivers loads of antic fun, even if there are times when the kitchen-sink approach borders on overkill. The multiethnic casting frequently aims to surprise, from the Fairies being played by senior citizens to Kristine Nielsen as a middle-aged, pajama-wearing Puck sporting a pageboy haircut. Clint Ramos’ aggressively colorful costumes, varying wildly in style, are consistently eye-catching, and the verdant forest setting designed by David Rockwell features giant mossy trees, one of them outfitted with a tall slide that inevitably comes into use.
Shakespeare’s convoluted storyline — there are no less than four interwoven plots, involving two pairs of mismatched lovers — is rendered here with uncommon clarity. But while the performers prove highly adept with the poetical language, the action is as much physical as verbal. Besides the numerous dances choreographed by Chase Brock (Robert Joy, who plays Peter Quince, doubles as dance captain), the raucous goings-on include generous doses of slapstick comedy. That the characters frequently wrestle and tussle with each other makes it vividly clear that love does indeed hurt.
While not all of the performances are effective, the standouts in the ensemble provide ample compensation. Ashford is deliriously funny as the romantically frustrated — a trait true of virtually all the characters — Helena, mixing broad physical shtick with a vocal delivery that mines consistent laughs even from such lines as “Dead, or asleep?” Burstein recalls Bert Lahr with his superb vaudevillian-style turn as Bottom (although even he can’t prevent the Rude Mechanicals’ play-within-a-play from feeling endless). Comic veteran Nielsen makes for a devilishly sly and unconventional Puck. And Richard Poe’s Oberon and Phylicia Rashad’s Titania are elegantly regal, even when the latter character, thanks to an errant magic potion, has fallen in love with a donkey-headed Bottom. Shalita Grant, Kyle Beltran and Alex Hernandez infuse their portrayals of the love-struck quartet’s other members with energetic physicality.
The terrific music, performed by a six-piece band perched on an elevated gazebo, enhances the evening, as do the vocal numbers delivered by the powerfully piped Marcelle Davies-Lashley. Fittingly, the long evening (the show runs two hours and 45 minutes) reaches its conclusion with a joyful, elaborate dance number performed by the entire ensemble. By that moment, any quibbles have been set aside, and this Midsummer Night’s Dream has fully lived up to its title.
Venue: Delacorte Theatre, New York
Cast: Annaleigh Ashford, De’Adre Aziza, Kyle Beltran, Min Borack, Vinie Burrows, Danny Burstein, Justin Cunningham, Marcelle Davies-Lashley, Austin Durant, Shalita Grant, Keith Hart, Alex Hernandez, Jeff Hiller, Robert Joy, Patricia Lewis, David Manis, Pamela McPherson-Cornelius, Patrena Murray, Kristine Nielsen, Bhavesh Patel, Richard Poe, Phylicia Rashad, Joe Tapper, Judith Wagner, Warren Wyss, Benjamin Ye, Rosanny Zayas
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Lear deBessonet
Set designer: David Rockwell
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: Tyler Micoleau
Music: Justin Levine
Sound designer: Jessica Paz
Choreographer: Chase Brock
Presented by The Public Theater
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