A Midsummer Night's Dream
nytheatre.com review by Judith Jarosz
August 18, 2007
Ah, outdoor theatre...I have never been a big fan. In my experience there are just too many variables, like soggy weather and unexpected noise, that can be distracting. However, with the right play, on that treasured occasion of a really beautiful and reasonably peaceful night, it can actually enhance the experience. I was blessed with this situation recently when I attended The Public Theater's production of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Not that director Daniel Sullivan, who has provided us with a creative production and a solid cast, needed much help.
For those who don't know, Midsummer is Shakespeare's magical classic comedy that involves two pairs of lovers who, after facing a romantic dilemma, flee into the woods only to become the playthings of a group of fairies who are having their own romantic challenges. There is a royal wedding with entertainment by an inept troupe of would-be actors who also fall prey to the fairy antics while rehearsing in the woods. Much confusion ensues with magic and mistaken identities before the air is cleared and things wrap up with a hilarious play within a play.
Unlike some of the Bard's plays, Midsummer's setting is pretty malleable. I have seen productions set in everything from medieval castles to unknown planets without compromising the text. Sullivan chooses to set the piece in the Victorian era, a time of sexual repression seething with undercurrents. This works well in many respects, allowing a humorous contrast as the regal formality of the era breaks down when different characters fall under the influence of magic spells.
Courtesy of set designer Eugene Lee, all of the action takes place around an immense, magnificent, stark yet lifelike tree trunk and branches that dominate center stage. Its many nooks and crannies give ample opportunity for the actors to climb, spring forth, hang off, and hide behind. The lovely costumes designed by Ann Hould-Ward make full use of the gorgeous period style, and are constructed to allow for some characters to shed layers as frustration builds and emotional armor is let loose. For example, when we first meet Titania, the queen of the fairies (Laila Robins), she enters like a severe version of Mary Poppins, in full Victorian regalia, pushing a perambulator while surrounded by her child fairy attendants. Later, when Oberon, the fairy king (resonant-voiced Keith David) jealously puts a spell on her in an attempt to claim a changeling child who is garnering all of her attention, she becomes uninhibited, traipsing about in her corset with bawdy enjoyment. The lighting design by Michael Chybowski helps to emphasize the magical aspects of the setting with some hauntingly beautiful choices. I enjoyed the sound design by Acme Sound Partners, and the music by composer David Neumann.
But settings are nothing without a cast that is able to handle the text and I am happy to report that Sullivan and artistic director Oskar Eustis have gathered together a strong group of theatrically trained actors. Both Robins and Keith excel as Titania and Oberon, as does the vivacious Jon Michael Hill as Oberon's servant Puck. The four lovers in this play can often be generic and hard to tell apart, but this Hermia (Mireille Enos), Demetrius (Elliot Villar), Lysander (Austin Lysy) and Helena (Martha Plimpton) all have fine moments with strong individual personalities. Plimpton is especially funny as the hapless Helena.
As for the rude mechanicals who perform the play-within-a-play at the end of the show for wedding of Duke Theseus (a regal Daniel Oreskes) and his bride Hippolyta, the Amazon Queen (a very funny Opal Alladin), actors Tim Blake Nelson, Jay O. Sanders, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Ken Cheeseman, Jason Antoon, and Keith Randoph Smith each bring hilarious touches to their parts. Sanders is a highlight of the evening as the rustic Nick Bottom, a weaver by trade, who is literally turned into an ass by fairy magic, then romanced for a while by the equally spellbound Titania. His generosity on stage to his fellow performers was also apparent.
The children are sweet as the little fairies and grown-up Chelsea Bacon as the First Fairy puts her considerable aerial talents to use, managing to converse at times while hanging upside with one leg wrapped around a rope, dressed as a saucy ladies maid. George Morfogen does fine work as Hermia's stubborn father, Egeus, and Herb Foster creates some very funny moments as Philostrate, the Master of the Revels to Theseus.
There are some choices that I found confusing, such as when the actors are blocked with their backs to the audience while speaking or occasionally sing their text for no apparent reason. And at the end of show, when the entire cast re-enters and serenades us with a final group number, it feels awkward and out of place. However, these things do little to take away from the overall enjoyment of the production.
The last image we are treated to as the stage goes dark is a towering ring of park trees that surround the theatre, spectacularly lit up against a starry sky. Wonderful outdoor theatre...what a treat!