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Theatre in Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater)

Phylicia Rashad, Danny Burstein. Photo: Joan Marcus

There are so many delightfully mad, moonstruck people running around in Lear deBessonet's new production of Shakespeare's comedy that I almost hesitate to single out any of them. And yet, in this company of equals, three performances are especially worthy of being tucked away in one's theatre memory book.

The hilarity quotient spikes whenever Annaleigh Ashford is on hand as Helena, the most put-upon of the play's quartet of mixed-up lovers. Seduced and abandoned by Demetrius, the man she loves, and scandalized by his engagement to Hermia, her alleged best friend, Helena has plenty of reasons to feel aggrieved. From the moment she enters, clutching a box of tissues, mascara running down her face, a figure of tragedy in high dudgeon, it's the manner of Helena's aggrievement that Ashford turns into comic gold. She is slow on the uptake, yet quick to react: She works herself into afrenzy, whirling like a dervish, before fully comprehending the source of her fury, causing her to stop and wonder what all the fuss is about. Confronted with an inconvenient fact, her eyes narrow and shift sideways, and her jaw goes slack as she slowly, painfully tries to calculate the odds against her; you can practically hear the badly oiled gears turning inside her head. But don't underestimate her: Consider the way she removes an earring in preparation for a catfight, ready to pummel a rival in the name of love. As we have seen, in plays ranging from You Can't Take it With You to Sylvia, Ashford reinvents well-known roles from the inside out, adding fresh comic details that make them seem thoroughly new.

If Ashford is a comic tornado tearing across the stage, the production's true mistress of misrule is Kristine Nielsen as Puck. Clearly overworked in her position as general factotum to Oberon, the fairy king (Richard Poe, well-spoken and exuding authority), she bustles about, conscientiously spreading chaos in her wake. She enters from the audience, offering a riotous ad lib about the raccoons that famously call the Delacorte their home. Baffled by her latest set of orders, she cycles through six different facial expressions before shrugging and bouncing off to do her duty. (The verb is exact: Nielsen literally bobs up and down as she crosses the stage, like a manic bobblehead doll that suddenly found its legs.) Donning Coke-bottle glasses, she cases the joint, looking for the right young Athenian to receive a shot of magic love potion. (Of course, she gets it wrong.) Exhausted by her efforts, she sneaks away during one of Oberon's more florid speeches, lying down on the royal bed, hoping against hope to catch forty winks while he pontificates. Nielsen may be an unusual choice to play Puck, but she is also an inspired one.

Nobody, however, is having as good a time on the Delacorte stage as Danny Burstein, the production's Bottom. Armed with a florid stage voice and gestures seemingly borrowed from the brothers Booth, he is the star of every community theatre, utterly convinced that he is just one little break away from greatness. Getting together with the rest of the mechanicals to rehearse their production of Pyramus and Thisbe, he is gazelle-like in his enthusiasm, leaping around as he volunteers to take on both title roles -- and all the supporting parts as well. (In his mind, Pyramus and Thisbe could make for a one-man tour de force.) Transformed into a donkey, he also becomes passion's plaything; in one of the production's most delectable moments, a floral bed rises up, bearing Burstein, dangling a post-coital cigarette, in the arms of Titania, the fairy queen -- Phylicia Rashad, a crest of sea foam in her flowing white peignoir and extravagantly wavy coiffure, cooing sweet nothings into Bottom's jackass ear. And yet, even though the production of Pyramus and Thisbe is as complete a debacle as anyone could wish, for a single, brief moment he makes it work, infusing Pyramus' discovery of his dead love with something very much like real grief. The laughter comes to a full stop as Bottom reveals that, after all, he may be possessed of more than a modicum of talent.

The moment passes quickly, destroyed by another ham actor gesture, but it may be the key to this singularly cockeyed, entrancing-in-spite-of-itself production. DeBessonet has all sorts of interesting ideas: The action unfolds somewhere in the Mississippi Delta, with a glittering forest of Spanish moss designed by David Rockwell and a kind of tree house where a jazz band plays, featuring a Bessie Smith-style blues shouter (Marcelle Davies-Lashley) sassily shaking her gold lame-fringed gown while moaning about love's depredations. But, more often than not, the director's inventions contribute to an underlying moodiness that stands in stark contrast to the plot-driven hijinks. The dispute between Oberon and Titania over possession of a changeling boy is often treated as a mere McGuffin to set the plot in action. Here, the director not only puts the boy on stage, she gives him a distinct relationship to each of his claimants -- a decision that adds a level of psychological complexity that is often missing from this subplot. (Rashad, when not making a fool of herself over Bottom, is the most regal of Titanias, arguing her case against Oberon with the authority of Elizabeth I defying the Spanish Armada.) In her most original invention, deBessonet has cast the company of fairies with actors past retirement age, who, for much of the running time, appear cavorting in various forms of sleepwear.

I'd be lying if I said that all of this comes together in some intellectually coherent way -- the production often feels blown this way, then that, willing to pursue all sorts of notions without a clear sense of how to put them together. And yet, what shouldn't work somehow does: this is a Midsummer Night's Dream that, for all its laughter, is oddly, persuasively, wistful. The young Athenians and the rude mechanicals may not know it as they stumble about in pursuit of their dreams, but the clock is ticking on them all, and it won't be turned back.

There's much more to enjoy: De'Adre Aziza's Hippolyta, transformed from a warrior queen into a shade-throwing fashion plate; Kyle Beltran's Lysander, ripping his shirt open like Superman before running off in search of his love. Vinie Burrows, lending her magnificently resonant speaking voice to Peaseblossom (in case you thought fairies were insubstantial creatures); Shalita Grant's amusingly entitled Hermia, convinced of her attractiveness, yet capable of keeping a lover in a hammerlock if the occasion calls for it; Jeff Hiller's Francis Flute, at first appalled to be cast as Thisbe and, later, carrying on like a diva right off the MGM lot; and Robert Joy as Peter Quince, the mechanicals' impresario and stage manager, facing theatrical disaster with a deadpan stare that would do credit to Buster Keaton.

The moonlight mood is enhanced throughout by Tyler Micoleau's strikingly beautiful lighting. Clint Ramos' costumes are filled with witty touches, including a Beyoncé-style wedding outfit for Hippolyta -- a nod also to wig and hair designer Cookie Jordan -- and silver beaded flapper dresses for the female wedding guests. (Hiller's Thisbe costume is a memorable sight gag.) Jessica Paz's sound design easily deflects all the external audio nuisances -- planes, traffic, etc. -- that can distract from the action onstage in Central Park.

Whatever its oddities may be, this Midsummer Night's Dream is laced with magic and mystery and packed with laughter. By the time a surprisingly serious Puck, speaking for the entire company, craves our indulgence, I'm willing to bet that you'll feel thoroughly satisfied. This time, we are all well-met by moonlight. -- David Barbour

(1 August 2017)

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