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Shakespeare’s Dream is as close to actor-proof as any comedy extant, and when it is performed out-of-doors its charms become surefire. To see how the magical dots of light that this production’s Puck hurls at mortals are matched by the glow emitted by Central Park’s fireflies is to believe utterly in the indivisibility of nature and art.
Even in a middling production such as this one, the audience’s applause at evening’s end reflects not only gratitude to the actors but also an illustration of the command from Peter Pan: if you believe in fairies, clap your hands.
Daniel Sullivan’s production for this Public Theatre Free Shakespeare in the Park is dominated by the set designer Eugene Lee’s gnarly tree. From its myriad branches Puck presides over the fairy world of Oberon and Titania, just as, down below, Philostrate serves as Master of the Revels to Theseus, Duke of Athens.
This Dream offers no unusual visual ideas: mortals wear muted summer garments, ending in matrimonial white, while the fairies glisten in black. Titania’s band is made up of children; normally, I am allergic to tots onstage, but, apart from slowing down the pace of things (one of the staging’s chief faults is its occasional lassitude), they were harmless.
The play’s two pairs of young lovers – portrayed here by Mireille Enos, Elliot Villar, Austin Lysy, and a vivid Martha Plimpton as Helena – rarely dominate one’s memories of The Dream, nor do they here.
Acting honours invariably pit Puck against Bottom and Flute, or, more nearly, against Bottom as Pyramus in the play-within-a-play, and Flute as that play’s Thisbe. The Delacorte’s Puck, Jon Michael Hill, relishes sprinkling about the production’s special effects: those pinpoint bits of light, as well as some startling sleight-of-hand with fabric.
But this Puck is no match for the gruff, working-class growls of Jay O. Sanders as Bottom, and no match whatsoever for the delicacies of Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Thisbe. Ferguson’s reading of Thisbe’s speech starting, “Asleep, my love?/What, dead, my dove?” is a little masterclass in how bad acting can constitute good acting.
Sullivan’s decision to make Puck’s solo curtain speech into a musical number sung by the entire ensemble is similarly creative, though I’m not sure I’d like to see this decision become a precedent.