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

David Ryan Smith. Photo: Richard Termine

The air is filled with festive green pennants, salsa music plays, and the cast is in a festive mood for this Midsummer Night's Dream, now playing the Public with a burst of confetti and a flurry of soap bubbles. If you sit in one of the front rows of Kimie Nishikawa's four-sided stage design, there's a good chance you'll be asked to get up and dance. You'll certainly be coached to cheer on the character of Puck by offering whistles at a key moment.

As regular readers know, I shrink in horror from audience participation, grateful that my little notebook marks me as a member of the press and, therefore, off limits. But this is all good fun, thanks to a cast of lively young talents who know how to get a party started. This is a production of the Public's Mobil Unit, which, a couple of times a year, takes a tab version of a Shakespeare play around the five boroughs, playing at community centers, shelters, prisons, libraries, and churches. (This year, in a significant expansion of its mission, the Mobil Unit has toured Sweat, Lynn Nottage's hard-hitting drama about the Rust Belt, to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.) It is, essentially, an extension of Joseph Papp's original impulse, which involved taking Shakespeare to the people, for free -- with results proving, definitively, that the Bard's plays continue to speak across the centuries to the broadest possible audience.

And just about anyone can enjoy Jenny Koons' furiously fast staging, which submerges the play's lyricism and subterranean melancholy for anarchic farce. It's a fair trade: This is a populist production, to be sure, but everyone in the young cast handles the verse with dexterity and wit -- and the use of a simple, unadorned space is rather closer to the Globe Theatre ideal than most. The nine performers swap out their roles with ease, switching between the wildly mixed-up lovers and rude mechanicals who put on Pyramus and Thisbe, the play-within-the-play that closes the show. There are several standouts: Jasai Chase-Owens is amusing as the desperate swain Lysander, and a riot as Snug, the joiner, who becomes the mouse that roared when cast as the bloodthirsty lion in Pyramus and Thisbe. Merritt Janson is authoritatively feminine as Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Oberon, King of the Fairies. Carolyn Kettig puts her deadpan style to good use as Hermia, who loses two lovers over the course of a single night, and Starveling, the mechanicals' seen-it-all stage manager. David Ryan Smith's Peter Quince is a true show-business baby, entering on his own red carpet, even if he has to kick it open himself. Natalie Woolams-Torres is a tough, put-upon Puck who can't quite believe the ridiculous assignments that come her way. Rosanny Zayas is a nasal, neurotic Helena, trying to catch a break from one of the men in her life, and amusingly enthusiastic as Snout, who, cast as the Wall in Pyramus and Thisbe, takes a stationary role and runs with it.

In a class by himself is Christopher Ryan Grant as Bottom, a character so mad to act that you wouldn't be surprised to hear that he had studied with the Athenian equivalent of Sandy Meisner. He is fun when transformed into a jackass for the delectation of Titania, Queen of the Fairies (Marinda Anderson, bringing hauteur to this role as well as that of Hippolyta, Theseus' beloved), but he is peerless when applying his deadly serious technique to Pyramus and Thisbe, the original Play That Goes Wrong, holding on to his dignity through a series of dropped-pants disasters. Other amusements include the number of hits that Grant's Bottom takes from the constantly repositioning wall; Leland Fowler's Flute, cast as Thisbe, mincing unconvincingly with a wobbly blonde wig; and a death scene that evokes chortles rather than pity and terror.

Mobil Unit productions don't employ sound or lighting designers -- the play is performed with the house lights on -- but Hahnji Jang's costumes consistently amuse, especially Peter Quince's default outfit, which includes a TodayTix vest and gay pride button. This one is just for fun, but the fun is plentiful, and it is a golden opportunity to check out some new faces whom you are certain to be seeing more of in the future. And the Mobil Unit, by all accounts, brings joy wherever it goes. It's good to know that the spirit of Joe Papp is alive and well on Lafayette Street. -- David Barbour

(6 November 2018)

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