Though A Midsummer Night’s Dream may be Shakespeare’s most-performed comedy, replete with built in slapstick, wonderment, and magic-enhanced emotional roller coasters, it’s not without its share of challenges. Chief among them is grounding the hilarity in real emotional stakes — or so you’d assume. Lovers’ raging passions may be contorted by a flower yielded by fairies with confusing motives, but Hermia, a doubly-loved character, has to grapple with the sudden shift in her partner’s affections from glowing enchantment to repulsion, while Helena, a doubly-unloved character, has to weed through a buildup of insecurity (perpetuated by persistent disregard by the man she loves) to understand how she could suddenly be so desired. And that shit’s written in a way that, for the characters experiencing it, is perplexing and heartbreaking. It’s a sped-up version of the very real process of eventual disenchantment that hovers over the hypothetical future of any relationship. Watching Helena and Hermia’s relationships to men, and the way the men in their life vacillate wildly between worship and scorn, can be just as emotionally trying as it is funny. Not so in the Public Theater’s production of the play in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater (up through August 13), directed by Lear deBessonet, who here furiously wields a penchant for the rapture of ridiculousness.
Midsummer follows four young characters into the woods — as the characters follow each other. Hermia, in order to avoid being forced by her father to wed her suitor Demetrius (declining will result in death or nunhood), steals away into the woods with her lover, Lysander. Demetrius, however, still loves Hermia, and follows them. But Hermia’s best friend, Helena, happens to love Demetrius, and so she follows him, despite his (just plain mean) protestations. Meanwhile, in that very same forest, some royal fairies are having marital troubles (essentially a supernatural custody battle). And in order to win it, lord of the fairies Oberon instructs his not-so-slick minion Puck to squeeze a love potion into his wife’s eye as she sleeps so that, when she wakes, she’ll fall in love with some random forest creature and thereby be shamed into capitulation. BUT, Oberon has also been observing the complications of the young lovers’ unrelated situation, and also asks Puck to meddle with that magic flower, so as to solve their crisis and make Demetrius fall in love with Helena. Unfortunately, Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, and so things get even messier.
Here, Helena, played by Broadway star Annaleigh Ashford with choreographed vaudevillian perfection, will not harrow you with the black pit of confusion in which her night in the woods — surrounded by the monsters of fickle desires — leaves her. It’s a towering performance, even if the tower lacks windows into its interior. The only emotion, really, that you’ll feel from her performance, with her pronunciations that’re just as dynamically choreographed in tone, and no less impressive for it, is the need to laugh uncontrollably. Rather than hiding behind a vague, knee-jerk “I’m doing something old” uppity speech pattern, she thrusts herself into the fatigued way so many of us millennials talk, using that as her sculpting clay to turn each line into a wearied curlicue of excitement and sardonicism, all underscored by a consistent through line of deflation.
Shalita Grant’s Hermia, meanwhile, seems less like a meticulously plotted series of (brilliant) gags than Ashford — and just a bit more emotionally real. She particularly shines once her confidence is punctured by the manipulations of the clumsy fairy, Puck (Kristine Nielsen), and her potent flower. But when Grant and Ashford are paired, their dynamic gets driven more towards polished slapstick territory, all viciousness and allegations of betrayal included. (Kyle Beltran and Alex Hernandez, doing what they can to work humor and memorability into Shakespeare’s underwritten young male lover characters, are convincingly along for the ride, swept up as they are by emotions controlled by a flower.)
Interestingly, fairy royalty Titania and Oberon serve as some of the more emotionally downplayed characters both in the text and in this particular performance — but their subplot of course soon turns into a weird game of magical trickery wherein Titania is forced, by the potency of that same flower, to fall in love with an insufferable thespian with a donkey’s head. And so, despite bringing a cinematic radiance and naturalism (and reverence) with her, Phylicia Rashad’s Titania doesn’t really — can’t really — do anything to pull the production into more serious territory. (Nor can the orchestrator of her embarrassment, her husband, embodied by Richard Poe with downplayed mischief.)
Meanwhile, there’s Danny Burstein, perhaps the funniest Bottom I’ve ever seen. He and deBessonet work so many jokes into the already-hilarious, performative character’s constant audition of a life — and, miraculously, the jokes themselves never seem too staged: the achievement here, not dissimilar to Alison Brie on GLOW, is getting naturally to the often lonely core of the always-“on” “theater nerd” archetype. Burstein comes closest to striking that balance between reality and heightened absurdity — but again, this is a character that very much naturally leans into the latter.
What’s crazy about A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that in its second act, it resolves its central lover-switcheroo narrative long before the play is over. And then what we’re left with is a half hour of preparations for — and the eventual performance of — a play within a play. There are a number reasons why this should seem like theater suicide. For one, certainly by today’s theatrical standards, it’s structurally bizarre. Then, there’s the fact that it’s a play within a play, with sparse, occasional commentary from the just-married king and queen characters we got to know in one scene at the beginning of the play. Hippolyta (De’Adre Aziza) and Theseus (Bhavesh Patel) sit at the front of the audience, also watching and commentating (along with the young lovers on either side of them) in a way that now echoes Mystery Science Theater — and so we’re given two levels of remove, and that’s an odd feeling to have at the end of a play. Then there’s the fact that it’s supposed to be a very bad production that they’re, and we’re, watching. This latter part means you essentially have to be so specific in your depiction of badness, because watching people merely pretend to be putting on a bad performance can be boring as hell — and lazier productions can get totally sloppy about this.
Here, with a scene stolen by Jeff Hiller in a divinely weird drag performance, and Patrena Murray as a character playing a human wall, the badness is so specifically maneuvered, the humor so impeccably translated, as to actually become the most engaging part of the entire production. This is a part of the play that’s actually written to abandon all emotional stakes and narrative altogether — which this production has been doing all along. When the performance gets a moment to acknowledge just how interested it is in creating pure joy — and how disinterested it is in everything else — it’s arrestingly affective.
It’s an odd feeling you might get: as other critics have also noted, you can palpably feel the weight that’s lost throughout this production, but also palpably feel those voids being filled by just how funny it is. Humor (even clownish humor) and tragedy don’t need to be mutually exclusive, of course, but they seem to be here. That may seem a shame, but the thing is…so what? When you’re dealing with the most performed of any of Shakespeare’s plays (as opposed to a rarer one like Measure for Measure), is anything really “lost?” I’ve seen this play a number of times, and likely will a number more throughout my life. If one experience yields the pure enjoyment akin to, say, watching Bridemaids — and manages to elicit the immediacy of that humor with a 500-year-old text, is there really a need to mourn a loss of depth, if depth isn’t the goal? And then a bigger question: does that sense of total electrification and revivification through humor not yield its own vast meaning?
One of the oddities of theater criticism itself is that one often considers productions as single entities as opposed to textural additions to a larger cultural picture. I’ve often bristled at “funny” Shakespeare — because what ends up happening is you have some Shakespearean scholar in the audience laughing hysterically at everything, and then an ensuing semi-uncertain and tepid mob mentality of people like me, laughing while trying to catch up (usually recalling analysis within a high school English course) to figure out what they’re laughing at, beyond a vague visual cue suggesting something funny has happened. That, or, the comedy tries too condescendingly to appeal to modern audiences. Not so here: what its actors, particularly Ashford, may lack in giving audiences an emotional experience, they make up for in a knowledge of what’s deeply funny within the text, and in a way to communicate it with an astounding clarity that never feels patronizing. You feel you’ve been squirted straight in the eye with the juice of a magic translation flower; that can only serve to heighten your notion of what all Midsummer performances are capable of.
The utter lack of self-seriousness of this production seems the perfect foil for the Public’s last Shakespeare in the Park, the #relevant, THEATER IS IMPORTANT Trump-allegorizing Julius Caesar. This production, rather, emerges as a kind of inclusive utopia of joy and hilarity — and one that’s thankfully nonchalant in being thus. (The fairies, for example, are mostly played by actors who seem to be over 70 — but their age is never rendered as a cheap joke, and hardly ever mentioned beyond being its own expression of joy.)
In so casually presenting an evening of free, untethered theatrical joy in Central Park — that forest-imitating part of the city choked by some of the most expensive real estate at every end (hey, Trump tower), just north of some of the most expensive theaters, with an occasional police helicopter flying overhead — you get a sense of levity and magic finding its room to breathe and exist inside a leaden, noxious, and exclusionary time and place.