Review: ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ as Light as the Open Air

Ms. deBessonet makes hay of the foolishness. Unusually well cast, her production is full of sharply etched if sometimes unsubtle comic performances. As Helena — who loves Demetrius (Alex Hernandez), who has eyes only for Hermia (Shalita Grant) — Annaleigh Ashford arrives on the scene with mascara streaked down to her jaw. She proceeds to paint her lines, often word by word, using a palette of electric colors and eccentric phrasings she perfected in “Kinky Boots,” “Sylvia” and, most wonderfully, “Sunday in the Park With George.” Like the other lovers, who also include the puppyish Kyle Beltran as Lysander, she aligns her character with her costume: clashing colorblock separates by Clint Ramos.

This makes for a decisively upbeat take on a story that can as easily be agonizing. Though “Midsummer” is set in motion by a supernatural feud between the fairy royals Oberon (Richard Poe) and Titania (Phylicia Rashad), and though the lovers’ misalignments and inconstancies are abetted by magic potions dispensed by the sprite Puck (Kristine Nielsen), its core is the human suffering that comes with love and its lack. When the nobleman Theseus warns Hermia to “question your desires,” he is telling us something about the play as well: Its humor is built on a profound examination of real, not painted, tears.

Real tears are absent in the park, but the play hangs together anyway. Ms. deBessonet focuses on the way the characters, of whatever world, reflect varieties rather than specificities of human affection. Theseus and his Amazon fiancée Hippolyta must convert their former enmity (as opponents in war) into marital unity, which the bloviating Bhavesh Patel and the quietly queenly De’Adre Aziza bring off uncommonly well. Titania and Oberon represent the disgruntlements of a later stage of marriage; beneath her hauteur, Ms. Rashad admits a hint of fallibility, and Mr. Poe, beneath his bluster, more than a hint of guilt.

Even the workingmen’s presentation of their play, always the most purely foolish element of “Midsummer,” sticks to the program: Their text — a “tedious brief scene” of young Pyramus and Thisbe — is a love story. (Jeff Hiller, deadpanning in drag as Thisbe, gets some real feeling out of the role.) And what is the transformation of Bottom into an ass but a satire of self-love gone grandiose? Braying in both human and asinine form, Danny Burstein munches the scenery…

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