WHAT “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
WHERE Through Aug. 13, Delacorte Theater, Central Park, enter at 81st Street and Central Park West
INFO Free; 212-967-7555, publictheater.org
BOTTOM LINE Shakespeare played for laughs.
You half expect to see a truck parked in the back of the set for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — this resolutely upbeat Shakespeare in the Park production is so broad, you could drive an 18-wheeler through it.
There are as many moods as there are subplots in the sprawling play. We follow kings and queens, highborn lovers and fairies, and a group of clueless handymen trying to put on a show. The vibe is in turn romantic, otherworldly, poetic and farcical, and often combines two or more of these elements.
But director Lear deBessonet exclusively focuses on the funny. At least it feels that way since it’s the cutups in a star-studded cast that includes Phylicia Rashad and Danny Burstein who hijack the show. Indeed, the performances are as bright and over the top as Clint Ramos’ costumes.
The one turn people are likely to remember is Annaleigh Ashford’s as Helena, one of the four young lovers who supply the romance. She has emerged as a sublimely gifted comedienne in Broadway shows such as “You Can’t Take It With You,” with impeccable timing and delightfully unexpected line readings. Here she makes a hilarious entrance and then ratchets things up further as a lovelorn damsel — at one point she cozied up to a theatergoer and drank his water. But after a while, her efforts only bring diminishing returns.
At least Ashford retains some of her role’s charm. That much can’t be said of another comic top gun, Kristine Nielsen, playing an androgynous Puck in striped pajamas. The prank-loving sprite sets in motion — wittingly or not — some big plot developments. Unfortunately, Nielsen looks uncomfortable with the language and over-relies on her usual bag of tricks: pleading glances to the audience, googly eyes, bumbling demeanor.
DeBessonet’s strength is drawing disparate people into a harmonious whole onstage, a trick she pulled off beautifully in “Good Person of Szechwan,” for instance. Her vision of the world is generous, inclusive of gender, race and age differences — one of the best ideas here is to have elderly actors portray the fairies. She also uses live music well, in this case with a band supplying a funky, New Orleans-flavored soundtrack.
Yet, as diverse as this “Midsummer” looks and sounds, it is uniform in tone, reducing the play to a one-note romp. What’s the point of giving a multifaceted chorus such a limited repertoire?