Even where supernatural beings are concerned, magic only makes trouble, while common sense and goodwill set matters right. That’s the apparent moral of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which a love potion employed by the king of the fairies makes everybody, mortal or spirit, fall in love with the wrong person, while the more organic magic of a summer night, a little rest when you’re stressed, and some soothing music “such as charmeth sleep” lead smoothly to a reconciliation that grants almost everyone a happy ending. The major part of that organic magic is verbal: The Dream, more than any of Shakespeare’s other plays, casts its poetic spell through pure wordplay, no dangerous potions required. The poet may view love as war, and lovers as prone to treachery, but he knows that some well-chosen tender words, abetted by music and the beauty of nature, can help us all realign when things go awry.
Director Lear deBessonet’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, for the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park, goes Southern, visually and musically. David Rockwell’s set fills the Delacorte with trees draped in spangly Spanish moss; costume designer Clint Ramos decks out the Amazon queen, Hippolyta (de’Adre Aziza), as a 1910s Atlanta belle, in a long skirt and picture hat. Justin Levine’s music slithers from New Orleans jazz into soul-pop with flecks of gospel, mostly not set to Shakespeare’s lyrics.
That “not” exemplifies the production’s odd paradox: The Louisiana-bred deBessonet and her company are eager to supply all the charm and comic delight that A Midsummer Night’s Dream can generate, and often succeed at doing so. But equally often, in the process, they push Shakespeare aside, or stomp his poetry into jagged shards, so that it’s almost startling when he reclaims center stage. Actors’ limitations aren’t the problem: Those moments of reclamation come so regularly because deBessonet’s cast is packed with people who can bring the verse to flowering life. Only, somehow at many points they seem to be pursuing other goals, anxious to take the schoolroom curse off the poetry by spoofing it, or by shouting it as some kind of generalized announcement detached from their roles, or by fracturing its rhythms and its musical effects. The Park audience willingly delights, granted, in tricks pulled from this ancient bag, but what percentage of their delight comes from the play Shakespeare wrote is at best a highly debatable question.
I’m not talking here about the “mechanicals,” Shakespeare’s affectionate tribute to the valiant ineptitude of amateur actors. These are the Dream’s clowns; their creator surely knew from experience how hard it was to keep them from ad-libbing. In every production, the scenes in which they rehearse and perform their unintentional travesty of the Pyramus and Thisbe story are a bedlam of interpolations and sight gags, and deBessonet’s clowns maintain the tradition. If Danny Burstein makes their self-absorbed star, Nick Bottom, a more dryly aloof egomaniac than usual, he’s drolly offset by Robert Joy’s manic, jittery Peter Quince. At many non-clownish points, too, an actor’s grip on the text brings even a secondary character to startling life, like David Manis’s truculent bulldog of an Egeus. And deBessonet intriguingly casts the key roles of Oberon and Titania, rulers of the invisible world, with mature actors. Instead of glamorous youngsters speaking with empty prettiness, Richard Poe and Phylicia Rashad offer both the needed delicacy of speech and the grave weight of their characters’ emotions, a matter of broad significance: Their dissension, Titania tells us, has disrupted the whole world, bringing on epidemics, bad harvests, and weather disruptions that suggest global warming.
DeBessonet adds to the fun by casting her white-robed fairy retinue with actors of all heights, ages, and genders. One or two of her casting experiments, however, don’t come off so successfully. The customarily enchanting Kristine Nielsen makes an oddly stolid Puck, puzzling because so many previous roles have revealed that Nielsen certainly has a Puck-like mischievous sprite within her. That this freewheeling spirit can be released by Christopher Durang or (more decorously) by Noël Coward, but apparently not by Shakespeare, constitutes a head-scratcher. But it may have to do with the sudden earnestness that comes over some theater people when the name “Shakespeare” comes up. Annaleigh Ashford, deBessonet’s Helena, seems determined to prove that she’s above such facile reactions. Instead, unfortunately, she chops up the verse eccentrically, unlike her three colleagues among the quartet of mismatched lovers; she inserts pauses and deadpan takes in what seem the least appropriate places. Overall she behaves much less like a young woman bitter first at being rejected and then at being, as she thinks, mocked than like a sassy showbiz gal striving to make the most of a leading role. The double pity is that this approach misuses Ashford’s genuine gifts, while unbalancing her scenes with her three companions, who display a much stronger grasp of both the verse — which Kyle Beltran’s Lysander handles with particular skill — and the hyper-emotional comedy of their entanglement.
Some of Ashford’s quirkiness may come from the way the text is cut, particularly in the opening scene. Shakespeare’s plays do need cutting, and this one has always nettled me by seeming to have three epilogues. But cuts should be made cleanly. Consider this rhymed quatrain of Helena’s: “For ere Demetrius looked on Hermia’s eyne/He hailed down oaths that he was only mine/And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt/So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt.” The four elegantly turned lines give not only a complete image, but the impetus for Helena’s decision, in the next line, to warn Demetrius about Hermia’s elopement with Lysander. It’s his changeability, not his previous vows to her, that give her hope. (And events ultimately prove her right.) DeBessonet spoils both the quatrain’s perfection and the springboard it gives Helena by cutting its last two lines — one of many places where the poet who cast the Dream’s spell has been relegated to the sidelines. I don’t wholly blame deBessonet; my sense is that this has been happening with increasing frequency in Park productions of Shakespeare comedies over the past few years. A little more trust in both the author’s skill and the audience’s understanding might produce more genuinely magical results, just as a little common sense and goodwill do for the Dream’s overanxious characters.