Midsummer is one of Will's "friendlier" comedies. The mistaken identities revolve around love-struck teenagers, rather than befuddled twins. The magical conflict is serious but not dire. And the comic relief could easily extend into a "tediously brief" show of it's own. Given it's prevalence, it actually becomes one of the harder plays to watch with an open mind. The text rolls off your mental Teleprompter as easily as Hamilton lyrics. Each scene change begets another comparison to a past production. Each costume, sound and lighting choice is scrutinized. (It was preview night; of course the mics didn't work perfectly and the levels needed some slight adjustments.) Each actor is held up to an impossible standard of personal preference.
Except that this is Shakespeare in the Park at The Public:
"We are their parents and originals"
We live in a time when the adults in charge seem more like overgrown children than fully matured caretakers. A time in which it's rare to see a female face over 30 and the men are closely following suit. That said, I've no idea what Phylicia Rashad has been up to since The Cosby Show ended. Last I heard her daughter was playing Juliet at the Richard Rogers. And yet the moment Ms. Rashad entered, I felt no time had passed: her voice brought me back to my childhood and I felt in Titania a maternal warmth Shakespeare's script usually denies her. Richard Poe as Oberon gives the audience a refreshing vulnerability in his discord with Titania. Both actors rule the stage with the regality of wise parents rather than the anger of slighted children. With this choice they portray on stage a mantle of maturity that our current world is sorely lacking.
"Fairies skip hence!"
The burgomask by the bumbling mechanicals famously ends the play, which is why I questioned the choice to include one at the beginning. What at first seemed a rustic dance to live jazz streaming out the balcony, was actually fairy revels. These fairies surprise as a beautiful chorus dressed in white from hair to shoes. The largest group of elders I have witnessed on the professional stage, they enter dancing, unapologetically existing as do all artists regardless of age: for the pure purpose of sharing human emotion through art. Subtle and strong, Vinie Burrows as Peaseblossom and Kristine Nielsen as Puck, meet as equals, calm and rational adults, as well as carefree fairies. In that instant the magical world of Midsummer comes to mean more than petty fighting or corse sex; these beauties care deeply for themselves, each other and us. They are the foundation, as our grandparents and parents ought to be, of our shared world this evening.
"Is all our company here?"
A true ensemble is defined by no one actor overshadowing nor overcompensating for another. Even utilizing the amazing physical comedy skills of Annaleigh Ashford as Helena and Danny Burstein as Bottom, the story remained tight and gave all viewpoints their due. The vulnerability bar set by Mr. Poe was given reverence by each member from Bhavesh Patel's gleefully excited Theseus to David Manis's more worried than angry Egeus. Mr. Burstein believably became the "lover who dies most gallantly for love" in the last moments of his "performance" as Pyramus; luckily he returned to ridiculously obscene death throes, preserving my tears for the moment the lovers sat their "parents", played by our band of fairy elders, before the nuptial ceremony. Recent Juilliard grad Justin Cunningham as Philostrate exhibited the subtle sign of a brilliantly maturing actor by embracing the supporting role and imbruing it with the same level of grace and commitment as the chattier roles.
This is Shakespeare in the Park at the Public, 2017. This is where one can count on novelty, on concepts that challenge, and, even if it's not your favorite production, theater that takes our current sociopolitical landscape into account and asks that you consider our current world deeply thru the fresh eyes of both elder fairies as well as young changeling boys and girls.