Director Lear deBessonet’s production in Central Park of Midsummer Night’s Dream is star-studded and jazzed-up, but the first thought on passing through the gates of the Delacorte Theater is that it’s also been upstaged. The first show of Shakespeare in the Park this summer, ‘Julius Caesar,’ with its Trump-like Caesar, made national news and caused an angry blacklash. This led to disruptive behavior by some who attended, which explains why the Public has now hired security guards who check our bags.
That “Midsummer” has proven uncontroversial – except perhaps to Shakespeare purists – is surely all to the good by almost any measure.
But it suddenly struck me that there was actually a lot of upstaging going on within the production.
Danny Burstein as Nick Bottom the weaver more or less upstages everybody else in nearly all the scenes that he’s in, hamming it up as a hammy amateur actor. So does Phylicia Rashad as Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, in all the scenes she’s in – except the scenes they’re in together, when he’s turned into an ass and she’s been bewitched into falling in love with him.
Annaleigh Ashford’s performance as Helena upstages the rest of the quartet of lovers, whose fickleness in love is aided by mischievously sprinkled fairy dust. Her Helena, first spurned by both Lysander (Kyle Beltran) and Demetrius (Alex Hernandez) in favor of Hermia (Shalita Grant), then madly pursued by both, gives a broad, physical performance — leaning on her would-be lovers like a large plank of wood, sliding inertly as they drag her across the stage, hopping up and down, shrugging, making faces – all of which call to mind both her Tony winning performance as the clumsy ballerina in You Can’t Take It With You and her eager puppy dog in Sylvia.
Maybe it would be more polite, perhaps even more accurate, to say these performers stand out, rather than that they upstage. Besides, these are the biggest names in this production, and isn’t a star by definition supposed to stand out?
But what should we make of Bhavesh Patel as Theseus the Duke of Athens and De’Adre Aziza as Hippolyta the Amazonian, who is his bride to be? They are more or less upstaged by their elaborate, exotic costumes, designed by Clint Ramos – and by the huge dead animal (is it a wolf?) that Theseus slaps on the stage as the play begins.
One can argue that the director’s staging — all that clowning around, along with the original music by Justin Levine (a mixture of snazzy and soulful jazz) — sometimes upstages Shakespeare’s language. (I’ll say here that, for all his comic business, Burstein stands out for his clarity in speaking Shakespeare’s verse.) But if Will’s words do sometimes seem to be pushed aside for deBessonet’s direction, such a dynamic is certainly nothing new — either for Shakespeare in the Park nor for Midsummer Night’s Dream (e.g. Julie Taymor’s production of the play, which opened the Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center .)
Kristine Nielsen, like Burstein, delivers her Shakespearean verses like a pro, which is ironic, because her performance otherwise baffles me. She plays Puck,and is the least puckish Puck I’ve ever seen – daffy sometimes, shambling at times, but lacking the impish energy one (ok, I) associate with the character. Nielsen occasionally seems almost to be sleep-walking, an impression helped along by her pajama-like costume. I’ve loved Nielsen in everything I remember seeing her in, from “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” to “Hir” to “Present Laughter.” so I’m tempted to see her as being upstaged by herself.
All this talk of upstaging may give the wrong impression. “The Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Central Park offers the kind of fun and free summer evening’s entertainment that the Public has been providing at the Delacorte for 56 summers — that my parents first took me to when I was four years old, that I went to every day as a teenager, working there summers as an usher, and that I will be attending no matter who’s offended, until I am indeed slumbering there while those visions do appear.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By William Shakespeare
Choreography by Chase Brock
Directed by Lear deBessonet
Featuring Annaleigh Ashford (Helena); De’Adre Aziza (Hippolyta); Kyle Beltran (Lysander); Vinie Burrows (First Fairy, Peaseblossom);Danny Burstein (Nick Bottom); Justin Cunningham (Philostrate); Marcelle Davies-Lashley (Fairy Singer);Austin Durant(Snug); Shalita Grant (Hermia); Keith Hart(Third Fairy); Alex Hernandez (Demetrius); Jeff Hiller (Francis Flute); Robert Joy (Peter Quince); Patricia Lewis (Fourth Fairy); David Manis (Egeus, Cobweb); Pamela McPherson-Cornelius (Second Fairy); Patrena Murray (Snout); Kristine Nielsen (Puck); Bhavesh Patel (Theseus); Richard Poe (Oberon); Phylicia Rashad (Titania); Joe Tapper (Robin Starveling); Judith Wagner (Mote); Warren Wyss (Mustardseed); Benjamin Ye(Changeling Boy); Rosanny Zayas(Understudy)
Scenic Design by David Rockwell
Costume Design by Clint Ramos
Lighting Design by Tyler Micoleau
Sound Design by Jessica Paz
Hair, Wig & Makeup Design by Cookie Jordan
Original Music by Justin Levine
Running time: 2 and a half hours, including one intermission.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is on stage through August 13, 2017.