Phylicia Rashad and Danny Burstein in The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Margret Echeverria

What is happening in this world?  I don’t know about you, but I am so stressed out that I put my love spell flowers in the fridge and my normalizing herbs in the cupboard yesterday.  Somebody, please take me to a party so I can forget about my fractured government, my hemorrhaging healthcare and my pitiful wages.  What’s that?  The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park would like us to come to a wedding party in A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Lear deBessonet to maybe take our mind off of things?  Count me in.

This reviewer has always been wary of an “updated” version of any play, especially Shakespeare, but this production hit the target and far exceeded my expectations.  This show pulls us out of our respective realities for a few hours and sends us away a bit lighter because we have laughed so freely – perhaps for the first time in a long while.

The choreography by Chase Brock brings sex and physical comedy to this rockin’ party and, praise God, the tiresome Mendelssohn is nowhere to be heard thanks to original music by Justin Levine.  The costumes are an all American celebration – shiny and feathered recalling the days of flappers and the Harlem Renaissance and — do I see some ’80’s here?  Levine’s music is bluesy, jazzy and sultry.   Theseus (Bhavesh Patel) and Hippolyta (De’Adre Aziza) begin the show with a sexy strut for a little cat and mouse play.  They are having a blast.  This is what is so pleasing about this production: Every single person seems to be having a really good time.  We can’t help but feel that tingle in the fronts of our faces as these actors drink each other in and we follow them on a trippy ride.   Aziza is all class and sass.  Her Hippolyta clearly sides with Hermia (Shalita Grant) against her father Egeus (David Manis), that classic party-pooper who stops the revelry to throw up his personal problems on the carpet while requesting immediate resolution.

Grant is a self-righteous teenage daughter – you remember that spoiled cheerleader friend of yours from high school – and she is drunk with love for Lysander (Kyle Beltran) while Manis is the patriarchal, stern and tiresome old dude who demands she marry Demetrius (Alex Hernandez) or die.  Patel is a charming playful villain grinning with mischief when suggesting that the oversexed girl obey her father, die or hey, squelch those raging hormones and become a chaste nun *wink* *wink*.  I’ve never seen a production in which the generational differences are so present.  The kids are on fire and the adults are meddling wet blankets.

Our favorite child is, of course, Helena (Annaleigh Ashford), who is hopelessly in love with Demetrius because he shagged her on the sly, like you do when nobility betroths you to another.  Helena, however, will not be thrown away.  Ashford physically surrenders her whole hilarious self to Hernandez who has to tangle with her at almost every step.  Soon, while lost in the forest, when the spells are cast and the lovers are totally confused about their affections, Grant and Beltran, become part of this goofy,  thrilling and clever choreography performing delightful stunts in pushing and pulling, clawing at and escaping one another.  I found myself straining forward in my seat so as not to miss a single acrobatic stunt.

Robin Goodfellow (Kristine Nielsen), a puck, is not anything like Peter Pan.  Thank you, Jesus.  She is rather a rebellious grandmother in pajamas.  I am so grateful for this choice because Nielsen is a cheeky, grouchy and disgruntled servant to Oberon (Richard Poe) wielding her aged wisdom to not take any dictated mission for too important.  This clever choice of casting extends beyond our puck and to the other fairies as well.  Peaseblossom (Vinie Burrows) floats on the dew of the forest in a lovely nightgown and is all grace.  There is a clever element of ghost-like figures depicted by elegant senior fairies in their filmy night clothes traversing the back of the stage like visions in the strange night, while the speeches and action take place in the foreground.  Super kool.  We are in a world of live theater where dreams and magic live.  Nielsen throws in a line about seeing a large raccoon at one point during the show, and Gentles, I’m telling you, I saw it too, peeking over the back stairs of the set.  We are outdoors at this production.  Anything can happen!

And if there was not enough already to draw you in here, then please cheer yourself up with the Mechanicals.  Peter Quince (Robert Joy) has put together a band of total control problems in various stages of readiness to perform the play within the play.  Joy is playing the straight man – in my opinion, the hardest part in this comedy.  But Joy does not miss a single opportunity to sync the timing and nail the comic rhythm with a total deftness of skill.  Nick Bottom (Danny Burstein) is the insufferable and adorable amateur actor, whom we have all met at parties.  He is the one we love to love.  He has a crush upon himself, upon the stage and upon his own voice.  Burstein is like a soft, sweet pet who tinkles on the carpet, but he is just so darn sweet, we have to forgive him.   Titania (Phylicia Rashad) loves Burstein’s ass so much that she forgets about her Changeling Boy (Benjamin Ye), but this is not much of a feat as Ye, the only unfortunate casting, is sadly completely forgettable moving like molasses with his back often to us.  Rashad fills the air with love, pleasure and loyal affection; Ye barely reacts.

I so enjoyed Francis Flute (Jeff Hiller) as he grew into his part of Thisbe.  Hiller transforms from protesting playing a woman in the Mechanicals’ first rehearsal to a full commitment in the final performance that is so sincere, I thought I would pee with laughter.  And Robin Starveling (Joe Tapper) is the best moon ever – c’mon, we have all seen this show in a thousand different incarnations.  Tapper is brilliantly drole.  He doesn’t need any lines to make you giggle and his legs — ay, me! — don’t let me spoil it.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare; directed by Lear deBessonet

WITH:  Annaleigh Ashford (Helena); De’Adre Aziza (Hippolyta); Kyle Beltran (Lysander); Vinie Burrows (First Fairy, Peaseblossom);Danny Burstein (Nick Bottom); Justin Cunningham(Philostrate); Marcelle Davies-Lashley (Fairy Singer);Austin Durant (Snug); Shalita Grant (Hermia); Keith Hart (Third Fairy); Alex Hernandez (Demetrius); Jeff Hiller (Francis Flute); Robert Joy (Peter Quince); Patricia Lewis (Fourth Fairy); David Manis (Egeus, Cobweb); Pamela McPherson-Cornelius (Second Fairy); Patrena Murray (Snout); Kristine Nielsen (Puck); Bhavesh Patel (Theseus); Richard Poe (Oberon); Phylicia Rashad (Titania); Joe Tapper (Robin Starveling); Judith Wagner(Mote); Warren Wyss (Mustardseed); Benjamin Ye(Changeling Boy); Rosanny Zayas (Understudy)

Choreography by Chase Brock, Scenic Design by David Rockwell, Costume Design by Clint Ramos, Lighting Design by Tyler Micoleau, Sound Design by Jessica Paz, Hair, Wig & Makeup Design by Cookie Jordan, Original Music by Justin Levine, Production Stage Manager, Rick Steiger

Through August 13 at the Delacourt Theater in Central Park.  Free tickets are distributed on each performance day via the free lines at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.  People waiting for free tickets must line up along the path designated by The Public Theater staff and The Parks Department.  Free tickets are distributed at 12PM (noon) every day that there is a public performance.  The Public Theater General Info: 212.539.8500.  This production runs two and half hours, including a 20-minute intermission.