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A Midsummer Night's Dream

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Human Error
Elliot Villar and Martha Plimpton
Photo by Michal Daniel.

At least through September 9, every night is ladies' night at the Delacorte Theater. That's where The Public Theater's elegant new mounting of A Midsummer Night's Dream is proving once again that girls just want to have fun - and when they do, they spirit the men right along with them. From fairy ruler Titania to gentle giant Helena, from newly crowned human queen Hippolyta to stocky, spunky Hermia, and with more than a little help from a male bellows mender named Francis Flute, the streets and forests of Athens are alive with so much estrogen that no one bearing a Y chromosome stands a chance. And what a delight it can be.

Oh, you might find yourself wishing that the pairs of lovers romping and stomping their ways through Daniel Sullivan's production were more evenly matched, that Eugene Lee's set created more of an encompassing dreamscape than its single mammoth tree allows, or that even a single fresh idea would wend its way into this potently familiar brew of William Shakespeare's most treasured comedy. But even though you've undoubtedly sampled most of Sullivan's offerings before if you've had any exposure to Midsummer, complaints like these can't - and shouldn't - detract from the numerous pleasures that Sullivan's devilish angels have in store for you these last, muggy nights of the season.

Take, for example, the wide-mouthed, comical outrage that Martha Plimpton brings to the often-scorned Helena, who becomes two men's fondest desire after they fall victim to a misapplied spring of a magical bloom inspiring love. Or how Mireille Enos, as her rival Hermia, brings a sweetly subtle subversion to a woman who goes from having it all to having it nothing in a sweep of the eye (again with that pesky flower). And when it's time for them to face off, to unleash their claws and start drawing blood, the disorientation caused by snatching petticoats when the goal is to pierce the skin is priceless, time and time again.

Then there's Laila Robins, adopting a deceptively youthful sophistication about her own amorous affections when that pernicious plant brings her to threshold of pleasure over the local weaver, Bottom (Jay O. Sanders), who's been bewitched to resemble a donkey. (When Robins raises her voice in song, she displays a surprisingly firm singing voice that would seem to qualify her for most musicals. And, lest we forget, there's the Amazonian Hippolyta (Opal Alladin), who effects such a look of distaste at the mere prospect of shows (yellow high heels, of all things) that there's a deflating sense of defeat when you see her civilized at the finale.

The menfolk of this sparklingly unreal story don't fare as well. You never see from Keith David the full, kingly manner that Oberon needs to command your sympathies as Titania's wronged and revengeful husband. Nor does his mischievous servant Puck, played here by Jon Michael Hill with the sprightly occasion of a messenger from a Greek tragedy, occupy an identifiable position in the struggles between light and dark and love and hate that make Midsummer one of Shakespeare's most tonally malleable works. Neither Elliot Villar nor Austin Lysy, as Hermia and Helena chasers Demetrius and Lysander, takes a side, either; they make their characters are oddly interchangeable leading-men types that too softens the romantic foundations of the story. The true exemplar of courtly love, Hippolyta's conquerer and Duke of Athens Theseus, is played by Daniel Oreskes as wishy-washy in his own way.

Human Error
Jay O. Sanders, Jon Michael Hill, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson
Photo by Michal Daniel.

Bridging the gap between the sexes, and marshaling an advanced comic prowess that even longtime admirers of his work (including myself) might be surprised to learn he possesses, is Jesse Tyler Ferguson. As Flute, the working-class young man engaged (against his will) to play the lovesick young woman Thisbe opposite Bottom's grandiloquent Pyramus at Hippolyta and Theseus's wedding, he channels first the curiosity and cluelessness of an inexperienced paramour, but becomes by the end of the play a towering model of innocence lost on par with Juliet, of that other ill-fated romance (which, not so coincidentally, The Public produced earlier this summer).

It's somewhere near the middle of Pyramus and Thisbe that you realize Flute has become the embodiment of confusion of the center that has always been one of Midsummer's most crucial core concerns. This overlapping of play, character, play-within-the-play, and character-within-the-character is perhaps not the ideal representation of a play for which class, humanity, and emotional identity are usually the overwhelming themes. But if the other males of Midsummer can't speak for themselves, they're nevertheless darn lucky to have Ferguson's Flute as their spokesman. Or, if you prefer, spokeswoman.


A Midsummer Night's Dream
Through September 9
Delacorte Theater in Central Park, Enter Central Park at 81st Street and Central Park West or 70th Street and Fifth Avenue.
Pick up your free Shakespeare in the Park tickets on the day of the performance beginning at 1pm at The Delacorte Theater or from 1 to 3pm at The Public Theater Box Office, 425 Lafayette Street.