Monday, August 7, 2017

A Midsummer Night’s Dream - Fun and Frolic, But Too Little Heart

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The Public Theater pulls out all the stops with its eye-catching presentation of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Nights Dream at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. One of the most beloved and original works in the Shakespearian canon, and last presented at the Delacorte a decade ago, the show features star-crossed lovers, spurned suitors who don’t take “no” for an answer, a host of magical beings, and a group of strolling would-be thespians. While there is certainly much to enjoy, what's missing in this production is the subtle charm and magical essence the play has to offer.

In the city of Athens, Egeus (David Manis) has pledged his daughter Hermia (Shalita Grant) in marriage to Demetrius (Alex Hernandez). Hermia however, is in love with Lysander (Kyle Beltran) and will marry none but him. Lysander loving Hermia just as dearly. Enraged at his daughter's defiance, Egeus brings her before Theseus, Duke of Athens (Bhavesh Patel). While the Duke is in a charitable mood, as he is about to enter into matrimony with Hippoltya (De'adre Aziza), Queen of the Amazons, he is also bound by Athenian law, and orders Hermia to either marry Demetrius or be banished from the city. In response, Hermia and Lysander decide to travel to the home of Lysander's aunt, some distance away, where they can be married. Their route taking them through a nearby wooded area where they will spend the night. Upon learning of the couple's plans, Hermia's friend Helena (Annaleigh Ashford), quickly informs Demetrius, who sets off in pursuit. Helena following him soon after. Helena was once Demetrius' fiancée and still carries a torch for her former intended. She hoping that by giving Demetrius this information, it will cause him to see how unworthy Hermia is, and that he will then turn his love back to her.

Meanwhile deep in the woods, Oberon (Richard Poe), King of the Fairies is traveling to Athens with his magical entourage to bless the upcoming union of Theseus and Hippolyta. Oberon is also is angered at his Queen, Titania (Phylicia Rashad) over a young changeling boy (Benjamin Ye) whom she is determined to raise as her adopted son. Filled with anger and jealousy, and wanting to teach Titania a lesson, Oberon calls on Puck (Kristine Nielsen), a mischievous sort of sprite, to drop the juice from a very special flower into Titana's eyes as she sleeps. This affect of which will cause her to fall in love with the first thing she sees.

Shortly thereafter, Oberon sees Demetrius arguing with Helena and orders Puck to place the same potion in Demetrius' eyes in order that he fall in love with Helena once more. Unfortunately, things don't go as planned, as Puck unknowingly infects the wrong person. The result being that both Demetrius and Lysander are now in love with Helena, much to her consternation and Hermia's despair. It falling to Oberon to try to put things right with the four young people, while also trying to repair his own relationship with Titania. She having become totally enamored with one Nick Bottom (Danny Burstein), a local weaver and would-be actor who, thanks to Puck's sense of humor, has been given the head and partial body of an ass. Bottom being in the woods with several of his fellow craftsman rehearsing a play to be performed at the wedding celebration for the Duke.

One of the reasons for the popularity of A Midsummer Night's Dream is that it has something for everyone. Including great opportunities for comedic slapstick - which this production milks for all its worth. At the same time, the text offers moments of quiet reflection. Where matters of love and magic become intertwined, and one can truly feel a part of the essence of the story.

In this particular presentation, director Lear deBessonet has chosen to put the emphasis on the comedic. So much so in fact, that almost all the subtlety and nuance in the play is gone. Case in point being the verbal exchanges between Hermia, Lysander, Helene and Demetrius. Their scenes in the forest played so broadly, that while one laughs continually at their antics, any deeper connection to the characters is lost and thus, the chance to really identify with them. Since the strength of these scenes depend on the comedy smoothly blending with elements of underlying pain and pathos; particularly regarding Helena's fury when she feels mocked by Lysander and Demetrius; as well as Hermia's anger at what she sees as Helena's betrayal; the removal of such emotional underpinnings leaves one left with some rather enjoyable, but quickly forgettable moments.

It doesn't help that Ashford is able to act her three co-stars right off the stage; and the imbalance clearly shows. Her hilarious portrayal of a woman scorned giving a new definition to the word "clingy". Beltran and Hernandez do okay when they have the chance to display some nice acrobatic moves, but Grant's character ends up feeling like almost an afterthought in their various scenes together. One actually feels more chemistry between Theseus and Hippolyta, two characters usually treated as little more than throwaways, than with anything going on between the four young lovers.

Another problem occurs with the character of Puck. Nielsen treating the role more as a standup comic routine, with none of the overt playfulness usually associated with the character. The actress gets more than her share of laughs, but is never able to imbue her part with any real sense of fun. The usually reliable Nielson is also unable to bring any depth to the final moments of the play, as she recites the epilogue in a completely matter-of-fact manner, without any emphasis on what those words really mean.

Where the show does take off in terms of characterization is when all that's required is comedy. Such as with Peter Quince (Robert Joy), a carpenter by day turned hapless director, who miscasts everyone in his company when assigning roles for the play to be presented before the Duke. He also has to deal with one interruption after another from the egomaniacal Bottom, Burstein bringing a truly scenery chewing performance to the part. Both when the character is a mortal man, and when he has been transformed into an ass. In the latter scenes, Burstein and Rashad show a wonderful and winning chemistry. Rashad playing her absurdist scenes of love with complete believability; the resulting sequence being one which is absolutely hilarious.

David Rockwell's set of the show is fantastic, giving the entire production a New Orleans-style feel, with moss-covered trees trunks and weeping willow trees. Hand in hand with this is a musical score with a prominent jazz beat and some lovely zydeco music. The various songs belted out with gusto by Marcelle Davis-Lashley; billed in the program as the "Fairy Singer".

Also quite good are Clint Ramos' costumes, particularly the outfits worn by Aziza and Rashad. Also deserving of mention is the work of hair, makeup and wig designer Cookie Jordan.

This presentation of A Midsummer Night's Dream offers a grand time for all, and one will certainly leave the theater with a smile on their face. Though despite all the frivolity it has to offer, the production is continually unable to bring forth the show's more substantial elements lurking beneath the surface.

Featuring: Bhavesh Patel (Theseus, Duke of Athens), De'adre Aziza (Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons), David Manis (Egeus/Cobweb), Shalita Grand (Hermia), Kyle Beltran (Lysander), Alex Hernandez (Demetrius), Annaleigh Ashford (Helena), Justin Cunningham (Philostrate), Robert Joy (Peter Quince), Danny Burstein (Nick Bottom), Jeff Hiller (Francis Flute), Patrena Murray (Snoot), Austin Durant (Snug), Joe Tapper (Robin Starveling), Richard Poe (Oberon, King of the Fairies), Phylicia Rashad (Titania (Queen of the Fairies), Kristine Nielsen (Robin Goodfellow, a puck), Pamela McPherson-Cornelius (Second Fairy), Keith Hart (Third Fairy), Patricia Lewis (Fourth Fairy), Min Borack (Fifth Fairy), Judith Wagner (Note), Warren Wyss (Mustardseed), Benjamin Ye (Changeling Boy), Marcelle Davies-Lashley (Fairy Singer).

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By William Shakespeare

Choreography by Chase Brock
Sound Design: David Rockwell
Costume Design: Clint Ramos
Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau
Sound Design: Jessica Paz
Original Music & Music Supervisor: Justine Levine
Orchestrations: Justine Levine
Additional Orchestrations: Charlie Rosen
Music Coordinator: Dean Sharenow
Music Director: Jon Spurney
Productions Stage Manager: Rick Steiger
Stage Manager: Stephen Milosevich
Fight Captain: Austin Durant
Dance Captain: Robert Joy

Directed by Lear DeBessonet

Presented by the Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park

Address: Enter at 81st Street and Central Park West
Admission: Free
Information: 212-539-8500 or
Running time: Two Hours, Fifty Minutes, with one intermission

Closes: August 13, 2017

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