If you think you’ve seen enough “Midsummer Night’s Dream”s to last a lifetime and even if you are not usually drawn to Shakespeare, there’s one at the Classic Stage Company that should more than satisfy you and Shakespeare purists alike.
The draw is the star-studded cast led by Bebe Neuwirth (Hippolyta/ Titania), Christina Ricci (Hermia), Anthony Heald (Theseus /Oberon), and East Village performance artist Taylor Mac (Egeus/ Puck) — not to mention the king of character actors, David Greenspan, as a Fairy and as Flute who plays Thisbe.
But the deep pleasure of this staging is the way director Tony Speciale (just Drama Desk-nominated for his splendid “Unnatural Acts” about the anti-gay Harvard “secret court” of 1920) and his collaborators have created moments and whole scenes of this familiar play as you have never seen them before, resulting in cascading surprises that delight, tickle, and touch.
This is the Classic Stage Company, but the take is modern without sacrificing any of Shakespeare’s plot or poetry.
While the local yokels –– who perform at play’s end for the court of Athens as the swells prepare to marry –– are described as having “never labor’d in their minds until now,” it is the intense reimagining of every line by Speciale and company that makes this “Midsummer” so compelling. I have never seen that last scene performed with such hilarity, elegy, and creativity. Bottom’s (Steven Skybell) shake, rattle, and roll as Pyramus (which he pronounces like a Jersey city) is worth the price of admission, complemented by Greenspan’s camp but tender Flute as Thisbe.
What ends in love and mirth begins in tension and tragedy. Leather-clad Hippolyta (a sensual portrayal by Neuwirth with provocative costumes by Andrea Lauer) is angry with her intended, Theseus (a stately Heald). Egeus (uptight Mac, who will get to explode as Puck) is forbidding his daughter, Hermia, to marry Lysander (Nick Gehlfuss), demanding instead that she wed Demetrius (Jordan Dean), who is pined after by the ever-irritating Helena (Halley Wegryn Gross).
We see it all through a glass darkly –– literally, as a playing area (designed by Mark Wendland) of black grass reflected by a massive rear mirror pitched forward at a 45-degree angle over its entirety, providing multiple ways to view the chaotic goings on. A show often enjoyed under the stars in outdoor theaters is here given an intimacy in the CSC’s black box.
The show really heats up in the forest where the Fairies live and the young would-be lovers flee. As a Mad Maxy Oberon and out-of-control Puck cast and miscast their love spells, this show becomes a sexy farce as the young mortals lose their minds and clothes trying to sort out their affections, both true and drug-induced. The image of their spent, near-naked (sexier than nude) bodies scattered around the stage is an erotic triumph. Even the coupling of Titania and the ass-headed Bottom is sexier than ever, shrouded by a sheet reflecting every hee and haw.
There is atmospheric and integral music here (Christian Frederickson and Ryan Rumery) enhancing the action, with gender-fuck by Mac as Puck and Erin Hill as a harp-playing Fairy. Rob Yang is a sweet Quince, Chad Lindsey as Snout a wonderful Wall, and James Patrick Nelson a touching Snug shrinking from the role of the ferocious Lion.
One more thing. There is a copious and stunning use of rose petals here that reminded me of the movie “American Beauty.” And this production puts to rest the canard that Americans cannot do Shakespeare and do so beautifully.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM | Classic Stage Company | 136 E. 13th St. | Through May 20 | Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m. | Sat.-Sun. at 3 p.m. | $75-80 | classicstage.org or 212-352-3101