Shakespearing #47 by David Foley
The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park Production of
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The cult of the Fairy Queen has fallen into disuse, reduced to a remnant of aging votaries who follow her through the woods dressed in white. They serve her gently and lovingly, and why wouldn’t they? She’s not like those other fairy queens, vain and foolish divas, throwing their fairy might around. She’s regal and wise, alive with the sensual poetry of nature. (She’s played by Phylicia Rashad, so that helps.) When she discovers she’s been “enamour’d” of a monster, she’s philosophical, as if acknowledging that love’s madness, even this late in life, can still bite you with an ass.
Maybe because the fairies are the hardest thing to pull off in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, director Lear deBessonet has reimagined them like this for the current Shakespeare in the Park production. Their fey chirpiness is tamped down, and their joints are too stiff for going “swifter than arrow from the Tartar’s bow,” as Puck puts it. Even Puck, though still up for mischief, gets a little grumpy when asked to go zipping around the world at her age. (There are few more pleasurable sights in New York right now than Kristine Nielsen as Puck clumping around the Delacorte in white pajamas.)
When a production works it can be hard to say why. (Easier to say when it doesn’t.) It helps that Midsummer is a sturdy vehicle. Once that purple flower starts wreaking havoc, the thing practically plays itself. Maybe what this production reveals is that, despite the slapstick reversals, there’s something delicate in the play’s mood, and through her understated choices, deBessonet lets that mood sink slowly in. The trees of the forest at first appear Disney green and garish, but there’s a Swiss Family Robinson treehouse above them, from which a jazz singer streams knowing love songs into the night. It’s as if a child’s storyland has been invaded by adult rue and mystery.
Annaleigh Ashford and Alex Hernandez in The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Lear deBessonet, running at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through August 13. Credit: Joan Marcus.
We’re not drenched in melancholy, though. The squabbling lovers are as much fun as ever: sexy and bewildered and ready for a brawl. Funniest is Annaleigh Ashford who plays Helena as, well, a spaz. (More thematic reinforcement: doesn’t unrequited love make spazzes of us all, clumsily dislodging us from the world?) Hermia is small and feisty, as we want her to be; Lysander sweetly romantic; and Demetrius kind of a dick, but a sexy one. None of this messes with the basic formula, and you don’t want it to. You want it served up as pleasurably and entertainingly as possible. The rude mechanicals do their usual shtick, winding up with what is essentially a parody of the ending of Shakespeare’s previous play. No one is going to take the pain of love seriously this time out.
Instead, Titania and Oberon, trailed by those aging fairies, suggest not so much that it gets better as that it never ends. The pain and craziness and mistakes, the feeling that you’ve been pulled inside out, can happen at any time. So you’ll probably need some moonlight and poetry and jazz to get you through it.
NOTE: The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs through August 13th.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.