Word of warning to Annaleigh Ashford — don’t pet the raccoons.
The bubbly actress, who won a best featured actress Tony Award in 2015 for her delightfully quirky performance in “You Can’t Take It With You,” is having to be her own disciplinarian at the Delacorte Theater, where she’s starring in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” This being The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park — in Central Park — means she’s sharing stage time with raccoons, who are infamous for wandering around offstage and onstage — wherever they please.
That’s old news to actors who’ve performed here, but this is Ashford’s park debut, playing Helena, one of four misbegotten lovers in William Shakespeare’s popular comedy about love potions, sprites and a magical forest. The production, co-starring Phylicia Rashad (“The Cosby Show”) and Shalita Grant (“NCIS: New Orleans”), runs July 11 to August 13. (Most tickets are free, distributed the day of the performance at the Delacorte, or on the TodayTix app. For info, visit publictheater.org.)
Ashford, 32, a Colorado native, is married to Joe Tapper (also in “Midsummer”) and they have a 10-month-old son, Jack. Ashford starred opposite Jake Gyllenhaal earlier this year in a lauded production of “Sunday in the Park with George.” She spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.
How do you like working outside?
You know, this is my first outdoor show. It’s magical to see the stars and the moon when you’re talking about the stars and the moon. It’s also quite lovely to imagine what this felt like almost 500 years ago when it was first performed outside. But I’m also grateful that we have good access to bug spray, sunscreen, umbrellas — we even have a slushy machine under the stage.
Yeah. [She laughs.] I don’t think they had that back in the 1400s.
What’s your favorite flavor?
I go for the cherry but nobody really knows if it’s cherry. We just call it “red.”
Wise. It’s cherry in spirit.
It is. We choose to not ask what’s in the syrup that makes it cherry. That’s the magic of summer.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. Why is it so beloved?
It’s accessible, clear . . . and applicable to the world we live in. It connects to something fundamental inside our souls. You have four different storylines happening at the same time, and they come together at the end in a sort of joyous celebration. That’s a delicious payoff at the end of the night.
Your character, Helena, talks a lot about love.
She is lovesick. We all know what it feels like to want somebody who doesn’t want us. I guess the fact that these words ring painfully true today, 500 years after it was written, shows us something about the human spirit. Love is never not going to be a problem. And poor Helena — she never gets it. Lear [deBessonet], our director, said Helena is one of those characters who always has a rain cloud following her. She’s the girl who’ll always step in gum. A bird will always poop on her head.
I understand in your last show you shared a bathroom with Jake Gyllenhaal.
Anybody interesting sharing your bathroom now?
Well . . . [she laughs] . . . I share a dressing room with Kristine Nielson, Shalita Grant and Phylicia Rashad. What a dressing room of four ladies. And the thing about Shakespeare in the Park is that you share a bathroom with everyone . . . including raccoons. They’re everywhere. I’m not kidding you — an entire family of raccoons greeted me before my entrance beneath the stage. You hear about it before you work in the park. Everybody says, “Bring your sunscreen, your bug spray, and watch out for the raccoons,” and you think, “Oh, that last part’s a joke.” But it’s not. I had to remind myself yesterday that they’re cute and fluffy but they’re not cats.
How rustic was your upbringing in Colorado?
Well, this is not my first encounter with a raccoon. We had a cabin in the mountains — and I remember one year around this time a moose came down the river, and one night he came to our cabin, and hung out on the back porch for hours. They’re really, really, really big animals. And dangerous, especially if they’re a momma. So we were very cautious. It was like an episode of National Geographic outside the kitchen window. I don’t think we’ll get any moose here. You have different things on the East Coast. Different trees . . . and humidity . . . and I’d never seen a glow bug until I moved to New York City. They’re all over at night when we’re rehearsing. I feel I’m in a childhood fantasy, playing pretend by the light of the glow bugs. I don’t think it gets any better than that.