After its poignant production of Romeo and Juliet, The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park sets its eyes on lighter fare with one of the Bard’s classic comedies. And you might be pleasantly surprised by who turns in the dreamiest performance.
Reviewed by Ilena George
For the first time in the nearly 10 performances I’ve seen of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is the show’s play-within-a-play that’s the highlight of the evening. The same elements that made the play-within-a-movie in Waiting for Guffman so great are at work here: Wacky and delusional characters you’re wholeheartedly rooting for and a so-bad-it’s-fantastic performance of a mediocre play.
The rude mechanicals, embraced by much warmer lights than the menacing blue of the Fairy Kingdom and the dim gray of Athens, shine through as the play’s most charismatic and gentle-hearted characters. The casting is genius; distinguished actors bring distinction to all the parts. Jason Antoon as Tom Snout, for instance, familiar to theatergoers for his role as the crazy-eyed bartender in Contact, plays the Wall between Pyramus and Thisby with a ferocity that’s both hilarious and winningly sincere. Ken Cheeseman as the stage-frightened Robin Starveling/Moonshine and Keith Randolph Smith as Snug/The Lion are similarly irresistible.
As for the slightly more prominent mechanicals, if anyone could get sixpence a day for playing Pyramus out of Theseus, it would be Jay O. Sanders’ Bottom. A character who is often self-centered and thoroughly annoying, Sanders’ Bottom is instead a gentle man (though not much of a gentleman), beloved by his peers (even when they find him exasperating) and hugely enthusiastic about almost everything. Tim Blake Nelson, from O Brother Where Art Thou? among dozens of other movies, plays nervous ringmaster Peter Quince to perfection. Last, but not least, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, whose face currently tops a multitude of cabs with ads for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, plays Francis Flute and Thisbe with perfectly timed sarcasm and some of the best physical comedy of the play.
Under Daniel Sullivan’s direction, Midsummer emphasizes whimsy and lightheartedness, with songs, magical slight of hand and bright colors. No lasting damage is incurred by any of the characters and the final tableau with everyone singing Puck’s last monologue in unison emphasizes new beginnings and hopefulness. Usually, I prefer Shakespeare a little darker, but Titania’s minions, played by eerie children who look like extremely well-dressed characters from an Edward Gorey story or a Tim Burton film, almost satisfy that craving. And not a penis joke in sight! (But in taking the bawd out of the Bard, especially in a play whose subtext screams sex, it does feel a little chaste.) As a whole, though, the play is a satisfying way to spend a late summer’s evening.
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.