No, Daddy, I won’t marry that man, the young woman says. Her best friend has romantic problems, too; she adores a man who considers her a hideous loser. A group of untalented blue-collar guys are rehearsing a play for the city’s elite. A supernatural being uses a magic herb to make people want to ravish those they would ordinarily find repulsive.
This free outdoor production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” has African drums, vigorous dance moves — and did we mention same-sex marriage?
Uptown Shakespeare in the Park, as the Classical Theater of Harlem likes to call it, cannot possibly compete in budget or polish with the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park series at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. But it is still as fresh as country lemonade, with its smart casting, and much is made of its African, Caribbean and contemporary American influences.
The forest where the major characters spend a bizarre night is lush with jungle greenery. The fairies who attend Titania (Zainab Jah), their queen, could be Beyoncé’s backup dancers.
There is more than a little Rasta in this part of ancient Athens. And Jamie Rezanour, as the lovelorn Helena, makes a welcome Latina contribution to the cultural mix. But universality is the work’s appeal.
The role of Bottom, the most egotistical of the workingmen-actors, is always a golden comic opportunity for an actor, and Anthony Vaughn Merchant runs with it, especially in his supremely ridiculous death scene. Bottom, not satisfied with having been cast as the play’s male lead, wants everyone else’s roles too. For unrelated reasons, Oberon (Michael Early), the fairy king, has him turned into a donkey.
The young lovers in the forest have always been Hermia (Halle Morse) and Lysander, running away because Hermia’s father will have her executed if she refuses Demetrius (Matthew Harris). But in this staging, Lysander has become Lysandra (Ito Aghayere), and the play ends with a triple wedding (four brides, two grooms).
Justin Emeka, the director, has done wonders in terms of his cast’s rare and nuanced understanding of the Elizabethan words they are called on to speak. But the language also loosens up now and then, just for fun. When the fairy attendants greet Bottom with “All hail!,” he lustily replies, “Hail, yeah!”
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