From the very beginning, the shows were not merely transportive (as the best theater tends to be), but almost psychedelic. In 2013, when they staged The Tempest, deBessonet recruited 106 community members, 24 ballet dancers, 10 hip hop dancers, five brass band players, one ASL interpreter, three taxi drivers, and one “bubble artist.” In 2014, for A Winter’s Tale, deBessonet cast such bold-faced New Yorkers as Big Bird, Elmo, and Cookie Monster to appear in the production. Audiences loved them.
It’s not that the shows deBessonet puts on are always comedies or that she plays them for laughs, but she acknowledges that the same word seems to come to people’s lips when they try to describe her work—joy.
And she’s not impressed by those so-called artistes who dare underestimate it. “There are a kind of radical politics of joy,” she insists. “It’s not to be taken lightly and it’s not easy to [express] in a show.” A cliché of our moment, maybe; but the truth is it’s never been harder.
Thank god then that A Midsummer’s Night Dream doesn’t let the effort show. It’s a riotous explosion of color-blocked silk and smooth Jazz and even Beyoncé—though more on her in a minute. The show’s female leads—Annaleigh Ashford as Helena and Shalita Grant as Hermia, especially—exhibit the kind of pitch-perfect comedic flair that elicits not just smirks, but genuine laughs. On the evening I saw it, the friend who came with me leaned over and whispered her assessment; “A Midsummer’s Night Dream for the Tinder era.” Helena doesn’t have an iPhone, but the effect is the same; under deBessonet’s direction, the boys are dumb, the women are wonderfully unhinged, and by the end of the show, everyone’s swiped right.
“I feel like one of the many slights that women have to deal with is the assumption that they’re not as funny as men,” deBessonet says, the lilt in her voice a little sharper now. “And this show—it puts it to fucking rest.” At least three times, deBessonet raves about Grant and Ashford’s performances. “These are the Olympic athletes of emotional truth and physical comedy,” she says. “These women are incredible.” She pauses, the emotion evident now: “I love them so much.”
Thanks to Ashford and Grant, especially, the show moves at a frenetic pace. It slows down only for the fairies, whom DeBessonet has envisioned them as septuagenarians in pajamas, give or take a decade. And of course, time stops when De’Adre Aziza, who plays the regal Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, waltzes out in a head-to-toe tribute to our one true Queen—Beyoncé.
When I ask deBessonet to estimate how many people in the crowd catch the reference on any given evening, she’s optimistic; Beyoncé transcends generations, she tells me. “I’m gonna go for a strong 75 percent.”
The show will run for two more weeks, and after almost two years of work on it, deBessonet is having a hard time believing it’s all almost over. Still, the summer hasn’t exactly been smooth for Shakespeare in the Park, though deBessonet wasn’t involved in its controversial and Trump-inflected staging of Julius Caesar. And more than that, she accepts that our most prized treasures are so “because they are ephemeral.” It was Shakespeare after all who compared the beautiful to a “doubtful good, a gloss, a glass, a flower, lose, vaded, broken, dead within an hour.” Sure, “there’s a bitterness in knowing that it won’t last forever,” deBessonet says, but the bittersweetness “is part of what makes it precious and rare when it’s there.”
For free tickets, visit www.publictheater.org.