Shakespeare in the Park, presented by the Public Theater, on Saturday, August 25.
Like everyone who has studied Shakespeare and who loves his work, I have strong feelings about how his plays should be interpreted. If, for example, a production diverges sharply from my vision of Othello (deeply internalized self-loathing rotting behind a facade of strength), I’m skeptical about its quality from the outset. My opinions about A Midsummer Night’s Dream are no less passionate (though perhaps less vehement), so I was slightly disappointed when I learned that the Public Theater’s new production wasn’t using the same actors for Athenian and fairy royalty, often key in the sort of Freudian, forest-as-the-unconscious interpretation I favor.
But Midsummer has so many elements—the lovers, the mechanicals, the fairies, the city, the woods—that even if one element isn’t to your taste, another surely will be. And the Public Theater production won me over. Funny but not frothy, sometimes creepy but never cruel, it was too charming and sweet not to enjoy.
I often find the hijinks among the intermittently bewitched lovers slightly tiresome, but here the actors were so spirited and fabulously comedic that their scenes were among my favorites. The actresses, of course, had the juicier roles, and Martha Plimpton, as Helena, and Mireille Enos, as Hermia, made the most of them. Helena’s petulant indignation at what she perceives as mockery was nothing short of hilarious, and Hermia’s transformation—from rebellious but prim young lady to outraged, stocking-clad warrior, inching sideways toward her target as if she’d studied sumo wrestling in Japan—absolutely delighted me.
The mechanicals’ scenes were funny, too, and surprisingly delicate. Jay O. Sanders gave Bottom an endearing sense of earnestness—he’s not so much a self-aggrandizing boor as an overenthusiastic theater-lover—and the others, while occasionally impatient with Bottom, clearly loved and admired him, thus neutralizing the subtly mean-spirited vibe the mechanicals’ scenes have in some productions.
That said, I didn’t think the play-within-a-play quite worked here. It was so goofy (Bottom’s Pyramus must have died half a dozen times) that one never really got the sense of why the newlyweds stop ridiculing the amateur players, why they eventually congratulate and reward them. (Yes, I prefer the interpretation in which Flute unexpectedly delivers a truly affecting performance as Thisbe.) But my misgivings about the silly farce of the play-within-a-play soon melted when Bottom timidly approached Hippolyta and gave her the wreath of flowers he had discovered on his head when he awoke from his “dream.” It was a lovely touch: we know how affected Bottom was by that “dream,” and thus that generous, wordless gesture conveys more about the shared experiences of longing and love than the whole play-within-a-play.
Ironically, though, it was the portrayal of the fairies that most intrigued me. The production really came alive in the forest, with a fairy performing Cirque du Soleil–esque acrobatics on a gnarled tree, and a chorus of creepy children in goth Victoriana portraying Titania’s attendants, and vivid lighting and soundwork and effects dramatizing the magical flower. But it was all a lot of sound and fury until Keith David and Laila Robins (Cate Blanchett’s doppelganger, I swear) got to the heart of their performances as Oberon and Titania.
I always feel uncomfortable during the scene in which Oberon releases Titania from the flower’s spell, but David and Robins handled it so beautifully—layering Shakespeare’s eloquent language over equally eloquent unspoken undercurrents—that they stripped the scene of its abusive edge. They played the scene as though Oberon, no longer angry, regrets a prank that has gone too far, and the awoken Titania reacts similarly—not with horror or aversion or regret but with a startled, amused sort of air. One got the impression that the two often play such tricks on each other in the heat of their fiery emotions, but that the heat dissipates quickly, leaving behind an enduring, unbreakable bond. Rather than feeling childish, their relationship actually seemed mature, in the end, easily letting go of grudges, not even compromising so much as dismissing a quarrel that doesn’t mean much anymore.
The whole production felt humane, which isn’t always a quality I associate with Midsummer, and I loved it for that. As a cap to it all, director Daniel Sullivan gave most of Puck’s closing, fourth-wall-breaking monologue, set to music, to the entire cast. They all gathered together, fairies and lovers and mechanicals and everyone else, to sing to the audience, and it was heartfelt and beautiful. Like Oberon and Titania, I didn’t even feel I had to forgive them for not doing everything exactly to my specifications. The way they did do things was magic enough for me.