Who’d have thought that the Rude Mechanicals would rescue a floundering production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and turn it into a giddy delight? Galvanized by Danny Burstein’s open-hearted performance as Bottom the weaver (in a cast that also includes Phylicia Rashad), the village simpletons deliver a side-splitting entertainment that charms the royal court, has the Shakespeare in the Park audience howling, and brings the summer season to a graceful close.
Of all the plays in the Shakespearean canon, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is one that cries out to be performed as written. It’s pure comic romance, celebrating young love and courtship and the marriage of true minds – along with the fun of living among fairies. And because the action takes place in the magical world of fairyland, it’s ideally suited for being performed out of doors and under the stars.
But whatever overall concept director Lear deBessonet had in mind for this production is lost in a muddle of performance styles with no consistency to give it shape. Scenic designer David Rockwell, for one, certainly got the play’s message. The centerpieces of his simple set are three towering trees in full leaf and at the height of their glory. Composed in lustrous shades of green and dressed in dancing lights of Tyler Micoleau’s design, the trees pay homage to the wonders of the natural world – and introduce a hint of the magic waiting for us deeper in the woods.
The sweet if silly plot opens at court in Athens, where Theseus (Bhavesh Patel), the Duke of Athens, is preparing to marry Hippolyta (De’Adre Aziza), the Queen of the Amazons. Hippolyta is literally a trophy wife, the spoils of a decisive battle that went to Theseus. (“Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, / And won thy love doing thee injuries,” Theseus fondly reminisces.) But she seems like a willing bride and is, in fact, looking forward to “the night of our solemnities.”
Here, and throughout the play, the Athenian royals are luridly overdressed (by Clint Ramos) in tasteless outfits so blinged-out in gold-encrusted fabrics, it’s a wonder they can walk. The contrast is remarkable once we meet their fairyland counterparts, Oberon (Richard Poe, he with the classical voice of rolling thunder), King of the Fairies, and Titania (Rashad, so lovely and so regal), Queen of the Fairies. Ramos redeems himself by costuming these royals in silvery-white attire that is positively ravishing.
For some reason, the entire population of fairyland, which includes the legendary actress Vinie Burrows, are all elderly and seem rather frail. But Ramos has dressed everyone in fairyland in long white frocks that look like delicate Victorian nightgowns and are quite pretty. Everyone, that is, except for poor Kristine Nielsen, who is woefully miscast as Puck, the mysterious sprite who flies throughout the kingdom on gossamer wings, making mischief wherever she goes. To add to the indignity, this gifted actress is forced to perform in a blunt bob and unflattering men’s pajamas.
Once the young lovers take center stage in gaudy rag-bag duds, the visual chaos is complete. In due time, Hermia (Shalita Grant) and Lysander (Kyle Beltran) will fall into one another’s arms, as will Helena (Annaleigh Ashford) and Demetrius (Alex Hernandez). But for now, the boys are both fighting over Hermia and Helena is bereft. Once they’re all in fairyland, Oberon tries to help, but his flighty minion, Puck, works his love spells on the wrong people.
The antics of the lovers are all at odds, but so, too, are the performance styles of the four actors, who seem to have barely met. And while the acting tends to sitcom style, none of it comes from the same sitcom. Only Ashford, that gifted comic actress (“Sunday in the Park With George”), breaks out on her own with well-executed pratfalls and vaudeville turns that get laughs, but take us further and further away from the music of the language.
Unlikely as it seems, only the Rude Mechanicals have a consistent style that might be described as earnest honesty. The more seriously they take themselves and their absurdly literal version of “The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe,” the keener the satire of the popular rustic dramas of amateur actors like these artisans.
Burstein (“Fiddler on the Roof,” “Follies”) is the golden boy of this production for his warmhearted portrayal of Nick Bottom’s joyous love of theater and boundless enthusiasm for acting. Even during his transformation into an ass, Bottom seems to stand slightly outside of himself, enjoying the sight of himself in the role of the fairy queen’s lover. Will he remember his dream? One hopes so.
Unlike those self-conscious young lovers, the rude mechanicals never play to the audience or force a laugh. Peter Quince the carpenter (Robert Joy), Francis Flute the bellows mender (Jeff Hiller), Snout the tinker (Patrena Murray), Snug the joiner (Austin Durant), and Robin Starveling the tailor (Joe Tapper) are completely caught up in the wonderful creation they are constructing. In the face of such devotion to their art, who are we to sneer?