Theater review by Adam Feldman
If Julius Caesar hath offended, see but A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and all is mended. Shakespeare in the Park’s second summer production is as huggable and kind-natured as its first was prickly, provocative and divisive. After the war wounds of June, here are sweet, welcome balms of laughter, music, young love and ancient magic.
That magic is even more ancient than usual in director Lear deBessonet’s open-souled account of Shakespeare’s crowded comedy. In her annual Public Works productions at the Delacorte, DeBessonet incorporated hundreds of New York nonactors into pageants of civic inclusiveness. Here she continues that approach by casting very elderly people—some theater veterans, like 88-year-old Vinie Burrows, but many without professional stage experience—as the play’s fairies, attending on the elegant, silvered Titania (Phylicia Rashad) and Oberon (Richard Poe).
These sprightly sprites give immortality a decidedly mortal aspect to balance out the antics of the play’s other plots. The fairies don’t dominate the stage here (despite the overexertions of Kristine Nielsen’s Puck). Rather, their amateur energy charmingly echoes that of Shakespeare's “rude mechanicals”: the rough-hewn Athenian tradesmen whose attempt to stage a tragedy serves as the play’s long comic coda. These include Danny Burstein’s preening Bottom, bluff and buff, imitating heroic poses from the latest statues; Joe Tapper’s dainty Starveling, clutching a small white dog; and Jeff Hiller’s hilarious Flute, who evolves from knock-kneed conscript to tempestuous stage diva in record time.
But this Midsummer belongs to the quartet of squabbling youngsters dashing through the forest of Athens, drugged into confusion and betrayal by fairy love potions. Annaleigh Ashford, as Helena, offers a divinely funny portrait of romantic desperation—she works offbeat wonders on every line—and Shalita Grant’s Hermia slides memorably from pertness to fury; Kyle Beltran and Alex Hernandez provide strong support, often physically, as their changeable swains. Clint Ramos’s fanciful costumes and Justin Levine’s brassy-funky ’70s-flavored score (sung by the charismatic Marcelle Davies-Lashley) add to the swirl of pleasure. DeBessonet's production welcomes the spirits of community theater and theater community. You leave with a lovestruck smile.
Delacorte Theater (Off Broadway). By William Shakespeare. Directed by Lear deBessonet. With Danny Burstein, Annaleigh Ashford, Shalita Grant, Phylicia Rashad. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission. Through Aug 13.
Tickets are free (two per person) and may be picked up only on the day of performance after noon at the Delacorte Theater. A limited number of tickets are also distributed via online lottery; see our complete guide to Shakespeare in the Park tickets for details.