Review: A ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ That’s More Speedy Than Dreamy

When a show’s cast welcomes the audience by dancing to Elvis Crespo’s merengue hit “Suavemente” and Beyoncé’s “Countdown,” as happened at the Tuesday performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Public Theater, you have to wonder where the play could possibly go. When the party needle is in the red right from the start, there’s a high risk the only way is down.

Amazingly, Jenny Koons’s perkily ramshackle production manages to keep the energy up for the next 90 minutes. As a result, quite a bit is lost in the rush, from chunks of text to nuance — this is not the most polished Shakespeare you’ll ever see, or even in the top 20. But like a fair number of productions from the Public’s Mobile Unit, the show has a likable messy élan that compensates for many sins.

The Public’s Shakespeare in the Park series has become an institution, with everything that term implies: It is as beloved as the old Rolling Stones and as rocking as that band’s current version, and it can be just as difficult to get tickets. The Mobile Unit, on the other hand, is the D.Y.I. punk kid who keeps alive Joe Papp’s dream of Shakespeare for the masses by taking abridged, stripped-down versions of the plays to unconventional venues — community centers, retirement homes, shelters, detention centers — all over the five boroughs before ending with a short run at the mothership. (This fall the program went national for the first time with an 18-stop Midwest tour of Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat.”)

The focus in this “Midsummer Night’s Dream” is decidedly on the play’s comic side, sacrificing the dreamlike atmosphere and the story’s bittersweet undercurrents in favor of speed and slapstick. Everything goes so fast that you almost don’t notice that a plot point involves slipping someone a roofie.

This works best, of course, with the scenes involving the staging of the play within the play by the inept amateur thespians known as the “rude mechanicals” — here including a barista, a bike courier and a hawker in a TodayTix vest. Christopher Ryan Grant appropriately chews the scenery and spits out the splinters as Bottom, a blustering contractor who can’t even pronounce the name of the character he’s meant to play.

Balancing the mechanicals’ scenes are the ones focusing on the foursome of mismatched young lovers, whose antics have a youthful mix of eagerness and awkwardness. Best is Rosanny Zayas as Helena, who demonstrates nimble comic timing and always seems to be completely in the moment — a rarer ability than you’d think, even among the best actors.

The play’s third main element, the fantastical fairy realm, takes a back seat in this decidedly earthbound production. Still, it’s fun to watch Natalie Woolams-Torres portray the sprite Puck as the keen, fumbling aide of a queen bee (Marinda Anderson’s Hippolyta); the type will be familiar to anybody who has ever watched a high school-set comedy.

Not everything works here, by a long stretch. But enough does that the show could be a gateway production for many people. That may well be enough magic for one play.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Through Nov. 17 at the Public Theater, Manhattan; 212-967-7555, Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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