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Theater Review—“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Central Park

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Lear deBessonet
Performances through August 13, 2017
Annaleigh Ashford and Alex Hernandez in A Midsummer Night's Dream (photo: Joan Marcus)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is always tricky to stage, as Shakespeare juggles several disparate subplots that almost, but not quite, mesh together. There’s the enchanted world of the fairies, the low-brow bumbling of the “mechanicals,” and the frolicking pairs of lovers from the regal Athenian court, all set loose in a magical forest. It would seem perfect for an evening in Central Park, but director Lear deBessonet has flattened everything out so that, though it all flows nicely on the surface, the play’s disturbing undercurrents are left, well, undisturbed.
The production certainly looks handsome. David Rockwell’s judicious set design visualizes Shakespeare’s “wood” with a few twisty trees, which enchantingly play off the park’s surrounding greenery. Clint Ramos’s spectacularly colorful costumes are loud in the best possible sense, and Tyler Micoleau’s adroit lighting rounds out a delightful visual trifecta. Added to that is Justin Levine’s jaunty New Orleans-jazz influenced music, with songs belted out smashingly by Marcelle Davies-Lashley, even if she’s been shoe-horned into the proceedings as the “fairy singer.”
DeBessonet capably choreographs the characters’ movement, from the nerdily comic mechanicals rehearsing their play to the royals from both Athens (Theseus and Hippolyta) and the forest (Oberon and Titania). But the director must shoulder the blame for the ridiculous idea to cast elderly performers as the fairies—Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, etc.—nonsensical even considering that Puck, who does Oberon’s bidding, is played by the ultimate stage ham Kristine Nielsen, the least puckish Robin Goodfellow since Kathryn Walker in Julie Taymor’s 2014 mess at Theater for a New Audience.
Then there are the lovers, who are a well-oiled machine of athleticism and hilarity, led by Annaleigh Ashford’s Helena, a true spitfire. She might be too broad in her interpretation of the most desperate of the quartet—which includes Shalita Grant’s Hermia, Kyle Beltran’s Lysander, and Alex Hernandez’s Demetrius, each physically agile if histrionically undernourished—but the actress has a unique way of speaking her lines that seems to work for anything, from Sondheim to A.R. Gurney to Shakespeare, and her peerless physical skills allow her to get more out of a single gesture than others do by mercilessly camping it up.
The only other cast member on Ashford’s level is Danny Burstein as Nick Bottom, a part filled with immortal comic scenes. But Burstein, unlike most park performers, doesn’t completely force-feed a diet of extraneous bits to an audience all too willing to swallow them. Instead, he’s funny and poignant and realistic and fantastical simultaneously, which is what deBessonet’s Dream, despite some splendid moments, ultimately isn’t.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York, NY

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