Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Silly Slapstick Shakespeare in the Park3 min read

Midsummer Night's DreamShakespeare in the Park
A Midsummer Night’s Dream By William Shakespeare Featuring Richard Poe (Oberon); Annaleigh Ashford (Helena); Alex Hernandez (Demetrius); Photo by Joan Marcus

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Silly Slapstick Shakespeare in the Park

By Ross
Shakespeare in the Park is one of the true joys of being in New York City in the hot summer.  Last month, we were gifted with the glorious Julius Caesar, and regardless of your political persuasion, it was a thrilling night of theatre, even with the protesters yelling their silliness in the background.  I must admit, though, that another production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream didn’t excite me that much initially.  It’s a beautiful lovely play that is over-done in outdoor theaters across the nation and beyond.  It’s overly long, in my mind, and once the weddings take place, it should end, like the rest of Shakespeare comedies do.  But all that changed when I saw the casting notices.
Midsummer Night's DreamShakespeare in the Park
Kyle Beltran (Lysander); Kristine Nielsen (Puck); Shalita Grant (Hermia); Photo by Joan Marcus.
Seeing the names of Kristine Nielsen and Annaleigh Ashford attached to the production altered it all. Both amazingly funny ladies, and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare, these two should help create a wildly funny and exciting night at the sublime Delacorte Theater in Central Park. As directed by Lear deBessonet (Encores!’s Big River), the production showcasing a proclivity for slapstick humor, mostly works in a funny charming  manner. It has an identity problem, though, that doesn’t quite know what kind of show this lot is putting on.  Mostly hilariously orchestrated, there are also many moments that are played too seriously or too regally to fit in together well. Lots of choices of casting and style are questionable, although brave for the most part, with some of the ideas working. And others not quite hitting the sweet spot.
Midsummer Night's DreamShakespeare in the Park
Richard Poe (Oberon); Phylicia Rashad (Titania); Photo by Joan Marcus.
The most surprising is Nielsen’s Puck. She was the one I was most excited about. The casting of her as the sprite seemed like a genius move.  Anyone who saw her in last season’s Present Laughter had to believe that her Puck would be deliciously wacky and fun to watch, as the wicked Puck creates so much commotion in the forest for the four lovers and the fairy queen, Titania, who is beautifully played by the elegant and always regal Phylicia Rashad (Public’s Head of Passes).
Nielsen has the gift of being able to wring a laugh out of almost anything. This ability is approaching legendary, as seen in her tremendously funny and authentic performances in HIR and Vanya and Sonya and Marsha and Spike. For that role, she won a Tony Award, but here under the stars, given the mischievous Puck to portray, Nielsen falters surprisingly. She finds herself mugging and shrugging her way through the moments on stage with her fairy king, Oberon, played with charm and regality by Richard Poe (Public’s Why Torture is Wrong).
It really is the battle between Oberon and Titania that drives Puck forward into the mischief she creates. There isn’t enough heaviness in this dispute though, with Nielsen’s Puck making it all a big silly joke rather then mischief in it’s essence. It doesn’t really add up to much in the end, playing far too broadly with gags and joke-shop props. Her silliness feels forced and out of place in the wildly uneven performance she gives, although she almost rescues herself in the last ten minutes with lovingly spoken monologues that wrap this play up.  Director deBessonet let Nielsen ride too easily on her trademark quirkiness while ignoring the Puck’s darkness. It appears that Nielsen needs a strong arm and a clearer vision to guide her through from beginning to end.
(for the full review, click here)
Midsummer Night's DreamShakespeare in the Park
Kyle Beltran (Lysander); Annaleigh Ashford (Helena); Alex Hernandez (Demetrius); Photo by Joan Marcus.
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