Good for Lear deBessonet. She knows the simple directorial key to making Shakespeare relevant to modern audiences (as if he already isn’t). She’s proved this outrageously before in her Public Works productions for the Public Theater’s September presentations at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Now she’s done it again with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is — let’s just declare this outright — the best, the most exhilarating free Shakespeare from the Public in a long time.
Whereas too many contemporary directors think they must deconstruct the Bard to breathe new life into familiar scripts — witness Sam Gold’s current Hamlet — deBessonet instinctively understands that one simply needs fresh ideas and imaginative ways to come at often-seen material. (Take the “con” out of “deconstruct” and what do you have?)
The right casting accounts for a heavy percentage of any success. So maybe the place to start here is with deBessonet’s strong ensemble. It’s a troupe of equals, although there may be a first among them: Annaleigh Ashford, as the frantically lovelorn Helena.
For the last several seasons, Ashford has been racking up praise and awards (including a Tony for You Can’t Take It With You), which doesn’t make her scene-stealing behavior here revelatory. It’s merely confirmation of her rare gift. How she uses the skirt of the bouffant outfit that costumer Clint Ramos gives her is something for the audience. Since Madeleine Kahn went to the Great Clown Tent in the Sky, no one has had possessed that kind of endearingly innate daffiness. Now someone has, and it’s gloriously welcome.
Perhaps second among equals is Danny Burstein, the Broadway musical’s naturally funny leading man. As Bottom, he practically broadcasts the joy he’s having as a self-involved rustic. He’s a stitch when he abruptly realizes that he’s not making an ass of himself but, in fact, has been made an ass of in a flower-strewn bed with Titania (Phylicia Rashad), queen of the fairies.
Or perhaps second among equals is Kristine Nielsen, who’s almost never out of work in NYC, thanks to the freedom she inevitably radiates on stage. Anyone watching her over the last decade-plus knows that she has a bag of tricks — mannerism — and some can be more useful than others. As Robin Goodfellow, more usually called Puck, she’s decked out in pinstriped white pajamas and a Prince Valiant hairdo, and every trick in her bag is wonderfully pertinent.
If singling out Ashford, Burstein and Nielsen hints that the rest of the troupe is anything but top-drawer, you have the wrong impression. Indeed, Rashad’s Titania is comically majestic. Tangling with Ashford in the scene in which the four lovers confront each other (one of the best musical quartets of any Bard comedy), Shalita Grant, Alex Hernandez and Kyle Beltran capture the sincerity and confusion of youth. The other Mechanicals surrounding Burstein — Robert Joy, Jeff Hiller, Patrena Murray, Austin Durant, Joe Tapper — see that the Pyramus-Thisbe play (often tedious in dull interpretations) is buoyant as a bubble. Bhavesh Patel’s Theseus and De’Adre Aziza’s Hippolyta (at one point appearing in the most gorgeous Beyoncé gown that Beyoncé never wore) are self-servingly regal.
Is there an occasional problem in the troupe deBessonet put together? One: a frequent indulgence in shouting. Sometimes it sounds as if too few in the troupe understand projection. They might listen more closely to Richard Poe, who has plenty to teach in his version of authoritative fairy headman Oberon.
DeBessonet’s numerous jolly good notions are too many to list in their entirety, and why give them all away? But one of the best is casting senior-citizen thespians as Titania’s ubiquitous fairies and setting them free to cavort to Chase Brock’s choreography. When that light bulb lit up in her head, she had to have given herself a hearty laugh. Surely deBessonet must have chuckled again when she conceived of the nifty devices that Oberon and Puck deploy when putting spells on the addled lovers.
Hippolyta’s Beyoncé number and Hermia’s swishy skirt aren’t the only eye-catching costumes Ramos offers. He keeps them coming right up to the final black-tie evening attire sequence. That the dress parade looks like a million bucks is an understatement. From Aziza’s entrance — she’s the first figure we see, and it’s some figure — the audience sees a demonstration not unlike a John Galliano runway. (Nice to know the Public has the bulging wallet for such a display.)
The budget wasn’t spared for David Rockwell’s set, either. Theseus’s court is a walled community. As it revolves into the Athenian wood, large trees extend Central Park right onto the stage of the Delacorte. Tyler Micoleau’s lighting renders Shakespeare’s midsummer night as mysterious as a midsummer night should be.
High atop the set, to the right of the audience, is a lofty bandstand where Jon Spurney and five other instrumentalists play Justin Levine’s original music. Marcelle Davies-Lashley, in a flashy Jazz Age shift, sings in a robust contralto that fills the outdoors.
Shakespeare coined the old cliché “the course of true love never did run smooth” for the first scene in the first act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Of his comedies, which all demonstrate in various ways how circuitous that course that can be, this one might make the most persuasive argument that love can be hell. The merry work of deBessonet beautifully presents the playwright’s fervent case directly (pun intended). It establishes her as someone whom Public Theater Artistic Director Oscar Eustis would do well to sign up, from this day forward, for at least one guaranteed Shakespeare undertaking a year. Or more.