If any play yields more kinds of delight than A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I cannot wait to get to Heaven and see it. Though some plays here below offer funnier bits than the knockabout comedy of the four young lovers chasing each other through the woods, and some offer lovelier poetry than the fairies’ speeches, and a few even leave you as dizzy from the force of the ideas about love and art swirling beneath the fun, none combines the three the way this one does. Oh, right, I usually think after Puck bids the audience goodnight and we head for the exits, This is why I love the theater.
To cap its winning season of Shakespeare in the Park, the Public has entrusted the play to Daniel Sullivan. You have to feel for the guy. If he delivers a straightforward rendition of a play so popular as to be almost ubiquitous, he risks boring some of the audience (including, say, colleagues of mine who grumble about how often they’ve sat through the play). Conversely, if he starts getting all high-concept, he might ruin a story that needs no gilding. There’s really no way to improve on hearing Oberon’s marching orders for Puck, “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, / Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,” as they’re rumbled forth here by Keith David, the majestic voice of Ken Burns’s documentaries.
That Sullivan opts in the end for a straightforward approach is hardly a surprise: You don’t build a reputation for having the steadiest hands in New York by having Theseus and Hippolyta roar onstage naked in a yellow Camaro (or whatever). Still it comes as a relief. Though the show falls down here and there, material this good makes even a somewhat muted production feel like Christmas morning. Well, a Christmas morning where you awake to silly magic tricks, kids in Victorian dress playing fairies, and Martha Plimpton under the tree.
Plenty of worlds collide in this play—the young lovers, the amateur-thespian rude mechanicals, the fairies—but the pivotal figure is Helena, a character that Plimpton has, in a way, long been fated to play. Long ago in Goonies, she drew the thankless assignment of sharing the screen with Kerri Green, object of untold million teen-boy crushes. Is this not more or less the predicament of smart and gawky Helena next to her button-cute, loved-by-all best friend Hermia? Plimpton gets Helena’s desperation as she chases after her beloved Demetrius, who goes to the woods seeking only Hermia. “Use me but as your spaniel,” she pleads, lovesick and funny. She also has a nice way with Helena’s speeches—the soliloquies which prove her to be more observant, more articulate, and just plain more interesting than the other lovers. (You would expect no less from the author of the all-time best 21 Questions published at nymag.com.) In a world where everybody fixates on appearances—the words “eye” and “eyes” are spoken obsessively during the play—only Helena understands that sometimes “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.”
Plimpton’s handling of Helena’s big reconciliation with Demetrius isn’t as moving as some I’ve seen, but the young lovers remain this production’s strong suit, and the source of its best scene: the mêlée in which the boys get hopped up on love potion and pursue Helena at the expense of poor Hermia (excellent Mireille Enos, all smiley cheer and petulance). Otherwise the show abounds in sturdy, unsexy competence. The early scenes in the court of Theseus (Daniel Oreskes, sporting an improbable Rollie Fingers–style handlebar mustache) are a little studious. Though the mechanicals’ performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe” is, as ever, hilarious (thanks especially to Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s doomed maiden), the rehearsal scenes tend to clunk along. As Bottom, Jay O. Sanders may be most memorable after Puck (Jon Michael Hill) turns him into an ass, and he begins talking like a hee-hawing bumpkin. “Methinks I have a great desire to a bottle of hay: good hay, sweet hay, hath no fellow,” he brays. Maybe the fact that Sanders played President Bush in Stuff Happens last year explains Bottom’s sudden resemblance to him.
Sullivan may lose some little filigrees of humor or pathos with his understated approach, but he does gain clarity—lots of it. The delight of the show, for me, is getting to listen as Shakespeare puzzles through two deeply irrational human pursuits: falling in love and seeing a play. Of the former, he has little good to say throughout the story, showing us all the ways that we foolish mortals make ourselves ridiculous, shallow, and petty for the sake of love. All the same, he rounds the story off with a happy three-way wedding, one compromised only slightly by the fact that one of the grooms remains under a love potion.
The concern with plays and the theater is subtler, always percolating just below the action, wrapped up in the language of dreams. It comes to the fore when Theseus dismisses the fantastical stories of the young lovers, saying he never believes “these antique fables, nor these fairy toys.” For Hippolyta, however, the fact that the four of them describe the experience they have shared so vividly makes the story grow “to something of great constancy.” The unreal, in other words, can become real. And if a dream can do it, so can a play. In Puck’s closing soliloquy to the audience, “If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended,” Shakespeare extends a hand across the footlights. When Puck says what we’ve seen is “no more yielding than a dream,” it sounds apologetic; in fact, it seems to me a kind of wink: Through shared imagination, we’ve just seen, a dream can be unyielding indeed.
But this is where Sullivan makes his one calamitous misstep. For much of the night, the musical accompaniment has been merely obtrusive. Through some inexplicable miscalculation, Sullivan decided to turn Puck’s speech into a song for the whole company. It robs the moment of its charm (think of how tremulously Robert Sean Leonard recited it in Dead Poets Society), turning what should be a link to the audience into a chance to wow the audience. Had Sullivan stuck with the earlier, restrained approach, I might have fallen completely in love with his production. But like the man says in Act One, Scene One, that course never did run smooth.