They always love you when you play it for laughs — which is what Daniel Sullivan opted for in helming “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the most magical of Shakespeare’s romances, as a screwball comedy. But while no brows are furrowed pondering the darker, more perplexing mysteries of love raised in the play — the pain, the deceit, the cruelty, the madness of that supposedly tender passion — the agile cast plays the silly side of love with charming gusto. And in the enchanted outdoor setting of Central Park, the waves of laughter coming from the Delacorte constitute a kind of benediction on Joe Papp’s grand populist tradition of Shakespeare in the Park.
As far as the woodland setting goes, just give us the tree and we’re happy. Veteran designer Eugene Lee (“Wicked”) does just that by installing an ancient, gnarled, possibly haunted giant of a tree smack in the middle of the bare stage.
Before this night is through, the broad trunk and spreading limbs of that tree will shelter young lovers weary from chasing one another through the woods; serve as a love-bower for Titania (Laila Robins), Queen of the Fairies, and Bottom the weaver (Jay O. Sanders), the ass of a mortal she takes as her lover; give the mischievous Puck (Jon Michael Hill) a place to stash his bag of magic tricks; and provide the platform from which fairy king Oberon (Keith David) can deliver some of the most gorgeous poetry in the English language.
Everybody pretends the tree is invisible during the first scene, which is set in the court of Theseus, the Duke of Athens (Daniel Oreskes), who is about to marry Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (Opal Alladin), and would like all his subjects to settle down and respect the happy occasion.
But the impish spirit of rebellion is in the air — and immediately telegraphed much too broadly by Hippolyta’s fierce (and almost wholly unscripted) disdain for the civilized ways of the Athenian court. Also overdone are Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes, which suggest the nobles of Athens shop all over the globe and across the ages, from custom tailor shops in Edwardian England to the ancient casbahs of the Middle East, and are more indicative of fashion confusion than any true spirit of independence.
The thematic rebellion makes more sense once the two pairs of young lovers appear onstage to initiate the romantic quarrels that give the play its eternal appeal. Hermia (Mireille Enos), who is in love with Lysander (Austin Lysy), infuriates her father by refusing to marry Demetrius (Elliot Villar), who is being pursued by Helena (Martha Plimpton). In the impetuous way of youth, they attempt to escape their angry elders and sort out their own affairs by dashing into the woods outside Athens.
Shakespeare’s addled lovers are so endearing, they should be a piece of cake for most actors. All the same, Enos’ feisty Hermia — just watch her shake those curls of hers when Helena makes fun of her lack of stature — gives her more backbone than the little darling is accustomed to. And how could we ever again think of Helena as a lovesick idiot when Plimpton makes it so very clear — and so very, very funny — that the poor girl suffers from low-to-nonexistent self-esteem?
Once the action shifts to the magical woods, Sullivan’s comic ingenuity really comes into play. One priceless sight gag has pretty, girly Hermia attempting a romantic elopement while lugging around a very large and bulky trunk. The bustles and swags of those fussy court dresses also pay comic dividends when Hermia and Helena square off for the big love-battle with Lysander and Demetrius, who somehow manage to rip away everything but their undergarments.
More than that, this is one director who genuinely gets — and hilariously communicates — the rough humor of the rude mechanicals and the ridiculous play they rehearse in the woods to present at the Duke’s nuptials. Sanders earns the really big belly laughs as dumb-as-dirt Bottom, giving a performance that is one great bear-hug of affection for Shakespeare’s own Homer Simpson. But all the rustics are given respectful treatment by Tim Blake Nelson (a wonderfully hapless Peter Quince) and the other players in this goofy amateur production. Theirs is the one aspect of love that no one has to question.