A Midsummer Night's Dream

by Winnie McCroy

EDGE Editor

Monday July 31, 2017

The Public Theatre's free Shakespeare in the Park follows last month's tumultuous staging of "Julius Caesar" with its antithesis, a high-spirited rendition of the seasonal classic, "A Midsummer Night's Dream." This is the first time they've staged it at the Delacorte since 2007's production featuring Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Martha Plimpton.

This diversely cast production showcases some directorial choices by Oskar Eustis that are not often made -- among them an older woman as Puck (an impish Kristine Nielsen, with a whoopee cushion); a blinged-out couple of color portraying Theseus (Bhavesh Patel) and Hippolyta (De'Adre Aziza); and a mixed-race couple to play Oberon (Richard Poe) and Titania (Phylicia Rashad, who has discreetly removed mention of her tenure on "The Cosby Show" from her bio.)

This color-blind casting runs through the entire show, with Caucasian David Manis portraying Egeus, father to Hermia, (Shalita Grant) a woman of color. She loves Lysander (Kyle Beltran), who steps onto the stage in a stunning baby-blue silk suit, with piping on the top separating out a shoulder section in dark teal. The vibe of the scenes are very "Foxy Brown," especially in the scenes featuring Theseus and Hippolyta.

In this tale, Egeus demands that Hermia obey his will and marry Demetrius (Alex Hernandez), or pay with her life. She refuses, and vows to meet her love in the woods in secret, where they will flee Athens and be wed. Hermia tells her bosom friend Helena (Annaleigh Ashford) of her plan, and she, besotted with Demetrius, tells him in turn, to curry favor.

And how she does curry! There is no better tonic than watching Ashford, who is usually cast in very assertive female roles, supplicate herself for the love of Demetrius. It's rare to see someone soar so high, especially given that she spends most of her stage time on her knees, clinging to her beloved. Ashford truly brings the words of the Bard alive in her mastery of the language.

(Source: www.publictheater.org)

The play within the play is always the thing in "Midsummer," and this show does not disappoint. The Mechanicals put on a stellar production of "Pyramus and Thisbe," with a bearded Danny Burstein stealing the show as a spotlight-hungry Nick Bottom. Cast as his 'bride' Thisbe in the play is super-tall Upright Citizens Brigade alumni Jeff Hiller, who has the audience in tears over his ham-handed portrayal. Ashford's own husband, Joe Tapper, plays Robin Starveling.

In another unusual turn, a full compliment of players make up the Fairies, and they are all seniors. They dote on Titania in her flowery bower, and help protect her adorable little changeling boy (Benjamin Ye) from the clutches of her vengeful husband Oberon, who is responsible for turning the queen's eye to Bottom, after he's been transformed into a donkey.

The packed stage is very well-set, with large beflowered gates representing the Athenian home of Theseus and Hippolyta (think Jay-Z and Beyonce here), and trees with twinkling fairy lights representing the forest. Up in a corner treehouse, the band holds court under director Jon Spurney, with chanteuse Marcelle Davies-Lashely descending to the stage on several occasions to sing songs to the fairies. There's even a slide.

Kudos as well to the costume design by Clint Ramos. The dazzling apparel of the royals was breathtaking, especially a purple and gold camouflage hunting ensemble. The fairies and Puck wore white pajamas for the nighttime action, and black formal wear for the weddings at the end. And the besotted couples were clad in eye-popping, brightly colored ensembles that were later traded in for dirtier, more torn versions of the same, after their evening wandering in the woods under Puck's love spell.

Free Shakespeare in the Park is one of the great equalizers in New York City theatre culture. It's a way to take your family to see quality theatre just by waiting on line for tickets. But this production goes above and beyond other freebies. In fact, it's priceless.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" runs through August 13 at the Delacorte Theatre, Central Park West at 81st Street. For information or tickets, visit https://www.publictheater.org/Free-Shakespeare-in-the-Park/

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.