Danny Burstein really knows how to make an ass of himself. I’ve seen him as a bombastic Latin lothario in The Drowsy Chaperone, a blustery sailor in South Pacific, and a Russian dairyman who kibitzes with God in Fiddler on the Roof. Now the character actor is an actual, four-legged ass—or rather, an Athenian turned into a donkey. Burstein plays Bottom the Weaver in a jazzy, sweet, altogether delightful staging of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. With storybook visuals, smart directorial touches, and a frisky, diverse ensemble, this Dream is the sort of wonder-struck, bighearted spectacle Shakespeare in the Park was created for.
Although Burstein is perfectly capable of over-the-top hamming, his Bottom is surprisingly understated and tender. It’s as if the actor and his director, Lear deBessonet, wanted to show a more layered, vulnerable Bottom than we normally see. The result may not be the flat-out funniest version ever (although there are plenty of laughs), but it’s a character we can relate to: an irrepressible blowhard and stage hog compensating for esteem issues.
Besides Burstein, DeBessonet has a terrific group of actors at her disposal: Annaleigh Ashford as the lovelorn, long-suffering Helena; the spitfire Shalita Grant as her diminutive rival, Hermia; Bhavesh Patel and De’Adre Aziza as the mutually wary, soon-to-be-married duke Theseus and Amazonian queen Hippolyta; and Jeff Hillier as Francis Flute, one of the “rude mechanicals” who, with Bottom, put on a “lamentable comedy” about star-crossed lovers. A lanky mooncalf who speaks in a lisping upper register, Hillier may be the funniest thing in the show. His Francis initially begs not to play a woman’s part (Thisbe), but once the dress and veil go on, he takes to his role with a campy intensity. Also graceful and lovely is Phylicia Rashad as fairy queen Titania, and I adored the cheeky, swaggering turn by Kristine Nielsen: Puck in pajamas with a pageboy ’do.
Comedic performance is a slippery thing to write about, especially Ashford’s zany, improvised brand. As Helena, she telegraphs her feelings through clunky mimelike gestures or surrounds her lines with what feel like double sets of quotation marks. Frustrated in her attempts to win the love of hard-hearted Demetrius (Alex Hernandez), Helena twirls and flounces around the Delacorte stage like a pouting teen drama queen. Done by an actress who isn’t innately funny, this emphatic vamping wouldn’t work. But with Ashford, it’s just damned funny. She tears through comic ideas and moods with the quicksilver velocity of Robin Williams, but with a coquettish slyness.
DeBessonet does a marvelous job conjuring and maintaining a sense of wonder and enchantment. The fairies who attend Titania are played by elderly actors in white dresses or pajamas, giddy escapees from a nursing home—an unexpectedly touching concept. The costumes and set design are a riot of color and painterly joy. David Rockwell’s revolving sets are dominated by bushy-topped trees with lights twinkling through the lush greenery. Clint Ramos garbs the actors in sumptuous, eye-filling frocks and suits, done up in electric blues, reds, and gold.
The dog days of summer may be upon us, but there’s a cool breeze blowing through the park, where magic still commands.
Have an enchanted midsummer evening on the Upper West Side with this itinerary: