A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Reviewer's Rating

‘Tis almost fairy time in New York. Or at least, you’ll believe it in Carroll Park, the home of Smith Street Stage, marking their ninth year of open-air Shakespeare. Their Midsummer Night’s Dream proves there is new joy still to be found in this oft-produced classic. It’s the perfect dose of light-hearted magic for a summer night.

Photo: Chris Montgomery

Carroll Park is a venue whose charm exceeds the expectations of outdoor theater. A quaint brick building serves as the backdrop and the set, creating an atmosphere in some ways more formal than Bryant Park or other Shakespeare-on-the-lawn settings, yet retaining the easygoingness of being outdoors. This, plus the quiet, leafy Brooklyn neighborhood and the nature-sent fireflies glinting over the actors, make for a magical setting.

But this midsummer night’s production is more than just enchanting to watch. The company and director Jonathan Hopkins have mined the play for emotional nuance. The basic elements are there: four Athenian lovers who steal into the wood, searching for love but finding instead enchantment and confusion. There is the warring between the fairy king and queen, the bumbling theater troupe, and the bemusing marriage between Theseus and a woman whose love he won by “doing thee injuries.” But in this Athens we find so much more: strong-willed women and irresolute men, madness in the spellcaster and the spellcast, and a voice given to the voiceless.

The four Athenian youths are wonderfully fiery, whether in love or in hopeless pursuit of it. Each actor puts a spirited twist on an already passionate character. Baize Buzan is the standout, playing a Helena who is less of a lovesick puppy than a woman who knows exactly what she wants. She carries herself with an admirable dignity, given her situation – that is, chasing a man who hates her into the forest – without compromising the sweet and pitiful vulnerability of a girl suffering from unrequited love.

Photo: Chris Montgomery

Bottom’s little theater troupe mirrors, in a very sweet way, Shakespeare’s loving mockery of aspiring Elizabethan performers. From the girl in a Hamilton T-shirt and the guy who hands out headshots and resumés at every opportunity, the New-York-theater-kid jabs were a hit with the audience. Elsewhere, Hopkins directs the fairy king Oberon (Brian Lee Huynh) as an unhinged leader who leaps off walls and screams until the veins in his forehead bulge. It’s a clever choice that amplifies the chaos of the night. But perhaps the most interesting dynamic is that of Theseus and Hippolyta (Pete McElligott and Shaun Bennet Fauntleroy). The silent presence of the queen of the Amazons can make her read as anything from blushing bride to spoil of war. Here, she seems to be having doubts. When Theseus demands loyalty or death from Hermia, Hippolyta storms off stage. But at the end, Theseus grants the lovers freedom to marry the ones they’ve chosen, and Hippolyta embraces him gratefully. They share a tender look as Theseus realizes he’s finally won her over. The idea that Hippolyta measures Theseus’s worth based on his compassion for a young woman who wants to choose her own husband is incredibly sweet.

The production is lots of fun, and never does it take itself too seriously. But the show sets itself apart with the vivacity of the characters and an attention to detail that should put it on the top of your list of Shakespeare to see this summer (if, like me, you keep such a list). The emotional intelligence of this production will remind you why everyone returns to this Dream time and again.