All The Magic of Shakespeare, and No Bloody Trump: How Annaleigh Ashford Steals ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at The Public Theater
The Daily Beast
July 31, 2017
Would Lysander be transformed into Jared Kushner, and Hermia, Ivanka Trump? What would happen when Puck (Anthony Scaramucci) threw mind-altering drugs in their eyes to make them fall madly in love with, hmm, Kellyanne Conway and Corey Lewandowski, a White House-era Helena and Demetrius?
In terms of outrage and media coverage, what could New York City’s Public Theater do with their ‘Free Shakespeare In the Park’ production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to outperform the right-wing meltdown that accompanied its production of Julius Caesar?
Would transforming President Trump into Oberon, King of the Fairies, cause even more conservative outrage than having him stabbed?
Well, easily-roused Trump fans can stay home and rest easy. This Dream, directed by Lear DeBessonet, is uncontroversially vanilla, completely denuded of politics and appears, as light and bouncy as a mischievous puppy, the most traditional of Shakespeare productions. No Trumps. No Clintons for that matter. No state of the nation hand-wringing. Just zaniness.
The most transgressive thing is its fairly modern dress, and it should be noted there is no more perfect play to be performed at the Delacorte Theater on a summer’s evening than Dream. With its sylvan-set action, and mismatched-lovers falling asleep as they gambol through the trees, where better than an open-air theater surrounded by trees as night itself falls around David Rockwell’s simple set, which comes with cute lanterns? A group of musicians led by Jon Spurney occupy a kind of raised shack, and there is wonderful singing from Marcelle Davies-Lashley.
If Caesar came charged with contemporary politics, Dream comes streaked with whimsy—and a scene- and production-stealing performance by Annaleigh Ashford as Helena.
This isn’t a surprise for anyone who saw Ashford prove more than a match for Jake Gyllenhaal in the recent sublime revival of Sunday in The Park With George, and as Helena Ashford is just as magnetic, with perfectly timed, airy comic delivery and, when it comes time to fight Shalita Grant’s Hermia, the lolloping gait of a resolute kangaroo.
Helena’s insistence not to have any part of the lovers’ quarrels—caused by Oberon’s (Richard Poe) commands to Puck to make mischief—are as fierce as Hermia’s fury towards her, but voiced with the kind of dead-eyed detachment of a Valley Girl, like, totally over this, like right now.
The other three in this confused lovers’ nest—Grant, Kyle Beltran as Lysander and Alex Hernandez as Demetrius—are solidly devoted to their roles, but no match for Ashford as she dictates the pace, laughs, and meaning of every scene she appears in.
The all-seeing Puck is played with a set of heavy sardonic winks by Kristine Nielsen—last seen, well, sardonically winking (and masterfully so) in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter alongside Kevin Kline. Her Puck doesn’t seem much at the command of Oberon; they are compadres rather than employer and employee, and Puck the puppet master and operator rather than spritely agent of chaos.
The problem with A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not one shared with Julius Caesar: nothing much happens, and what does happen is very oddly weighted in favor of the frivolous and daft. OK, Egeus (David Manis) doesn’t want daughter Hermia to marry Lysander, but it never feels as if things will end too badly or hurtfully.
Here, regal as they are, we don’t much care about the upcoming nuptials of Theseus (Bhavesh Patel) and Hippolyta (De’Adre Aziza). They waft in and out occasionally, grandly, and that’s that. Notably, her power is equal to his, and he knows and intrinsically respects it.
In the spirit world of Fairyland, when it comes to Oberon and Titania (Phylicia Rashad), sure they may disagree over her refusal to let Oberon take charge over the changeling child who has so enchanted her (Benjamin Ye, silent and adorable), but there are really no problems there either. Puck drugs Titania so she falls in lustful love with the ridiculous Nick Bottom (Danny Burstein), who becomes—besides Ashford as Helena—the most commanding presence on stage.
That Titania falls so lustily for him even when he assumes the head of an ass is an added layer of absurdity. The fairies glitter in white and later glitter in black, and throng the stage as a benevolent chorus, the other fairy parts given to a group of older actors.
The play’s other laughs come from the company of players that Bottom belongs to, who want to perform a play based on Ovid’s lovers Pyramus and Thisbe for the delight of Theseus and Hippolyta.
It is a ridiculous play about a weighty mythic tragedy, and it is played ridiculously with Bottom playing Pyramus and bellows-mender Francis Flute (Jeff Hiller) as Thisbe. The joke is these are hoary-handed working men, and Flute is tall and in drag, and so his occasionally lumbering gait while in a dress or suddenly deep voice is deemed funny.
The tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe—he thinks she has been killed by a lion, but she has not—is the antecedent to Romeo and Juliet. In Dream, Shakespeare himself satirizes the kind of tragedy he wrote so masterfully, and within a play that toys with the light ludicrousness of romance. Comedy is the master of tragedy, in both the Dream and its play within a play.
The strange thing is that this play within a play takes up the last 20 minutes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream long after the romantic complications and druggings have been resolved. There is another marvelous song from Davies-Lashley. The evening is like a sweet-intentioned, indulgent fever dream.
If A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play full of japes, it also feels like a jape itself. It dissolves, like its characters, into the night, with Puck’s light apology for unintended offense. But the wonderful Ashford has ensured that nothing goes quietly into the inky dark as it descends on the Delacorte—with not a blood-spattered orange hairpiece in sight.