A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Classic Stage Company stages a wonderfully physical production of Shakespeare’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," that brings this timeworn classic to life with visually lush, modern -- yet not irreverent -- flourishes.
As the sounds of lightening pierce the theater, the players rush onto the stage, shaking off the raindrops of a summer storm. Clad in pastel preppy garb, the players grab a glass of champagne and take up positions on garden-style folding chairs.
With an icy visage that recalls her character Lilith Sternin Crane, Bebe Neuwirth strides in, breathtaking in black leather riding gear. As Hippolyta, to be somewhat unwillingly wed to Anthony Heald’s Theseus in four days time, she brooks no fools. Her reserved demeanor is completely appropriate for the role.
Theseus soon moves his attention to elderly Egeus (Taylor Mac, also playing Puck), who decrees that his daughter, Hermia (Christina Ricci) will marry Demetrius (Jordan Dean) rather than her beloved Lysander (Nick Ghelfuss) or forfeit her life.
As Lysander notes, both men are equally appointed in riches and stature; in addition, he has Hermia’s heart. But as "the course of true love never did run smooth", the lovers agree to meet in the woods the following evening to wed at the home of Lysander’s dowager aunt, far removed from the laws of Athens.
Hermia’s confidante Helena (Halley Wegryn Gross) catches Lysander presenting Hermia with a Tiffany engagement ring, and shares the news with her beloved but scornful Demetrius, in order to follow him and possibly win his heart.
Meanwhile, Peter Quince (Rob Yang) and the workman assemble to practice their play for the impending nuptials. Steven Skybell is stellar as Nick Bottom, giving a wildly energetic but focused performance as the lead player in this band of rude mechanicals.
But the whole work is knit together by the burlesque comedy of Taylor Mac as Robin Goodfellow/Puck. Clad in a candy-striped jumpsuit, Mac descends into the set via a window in the mirrored wall. Mischief is his work, and he eagerly does the bidding of his boss, Oberon (Heald, in a futuristic leather ensemble).
Angry with his queen, Titania, (Neuwirth, again in a leather leotard, and looking mouthwateringly lithe) Oberon calls upon Puck to douse her eyes with a potion that will make her love what first she sees upon waking. Transposing Bottom into an ass, Puck makes sure Titania’s embarrassment will be complete.
Also stumbling through the woods, weighed down by designer luggage, are Hermia and Lysander. On their heels, Demetrius scorns invectives at poor Helena. Pitying her, Oberon instructs Puck to enchant the Athenian so that he will reciprocate her love.
As fate would have it, he doses Lysander, who falls for Helena. Puck’s efforts to correct the error find Demetrius also vying for Helena, who believes the men mock her at Hermia’s bidding. The resulting catfight presents the most hilarious, slapstick physical comedy seen since "Bringing Up Baby."
Although Ricci starts out a bit shrill and out of her depth, she more or less finds her footing and performs her part well enough. Zipping herself into a suitcase, and playing chicken with Helena who notes, "though she be but little, she is fierce," Ricci exhibits a great comic timing and a grasp of physical comedy that other critics have unjustly underestimated.
Ditto for the hunky Gehlfuss and Dean, who spare no opportunity to raise their shirts and show their muscled torsos. By the end of the scene in the woods, all four lovers have been stripped down to their underwear. This may be a ploy to titillate the audience with half-naked, nubile actors frolicking around the stage. It works.
After a short intermission, the players return for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. While "the play’s the thing," for the "three and three who hold a feast in great solemnity," the staging of "Pyramus and Thisbe" drags. The show could have wrapped up after the first act without losing any of the production’s charm. David Greenspan as Francis Flute portraying Thisbe also deserves recognition.
Mac is absolutely winning as Puck, adding a camp element that the role craves. Costume designer Andrea Lauer deserves credit for Mac’s impressive costumery; during the course of the play, he appears in candy stripes, rose-petal panties and pasties, as Alice in Wonderland, a pink elephant, and as a gnarled tree. Even the tree costume, trailing crushed PBR cans and onstage for less than five minutes, is winning.
The use of props is also a hit, from the popcorn and fountain sodas that Oberon and Puck indulge in while watching the lovers fight, to the ukulele hidden under an audience members’ seat.
Kudos go to set designer Mark Wendland for his innovative use of CSC’s tiny space. A mulch-covered floor is set with a scattering of folding outdoor chairs, a la Bryant Park. An angled disco-style mirrored plane backdrops the works, giving the effect of a screen, as it projects action occurring on the floor. Periodically, the panels open for aerialists to descend from ropes, rose petals to flutter to the ground, or items to be passed through to players. As with the plentiful snowfall in "The Cherry Orchard," the stage emerges completely littered with petals and other detritus, leading one to pity the stagehand whose job it is to clean up after each performance.
Coming on the heels of their bleak but stellar winter staging of Anton Chekov’s "The Cherry Orchard," the Classic Stage Company once again proves they have the mettle to present the classics in a manner that honors their status, but is at the same time relevant to the issues of the day.
"A Midsummer Night’s Dream" runs through May 20 at Classic Stage Company, 136 W. 13th St. For info or tickets visit http://www.classicstage.org