NEW YORK — "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"
"Very true, Puck. But my, how buff and toned they are, too. Get me the number of their trainer!"
OK, we're taking a bit of liberty with Shakespeare's dialogue here. Oberon, king of the fairies, doesn't make that precise comment as he observes the four amorously confused lovers of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" duke it out in the freewheeling and highly entertaining new production at the Classic Stage Company that opened Sunday.
But he might as well. He's sitting there in an aluminum lawn chair, next to his "knavish sprite" Puck, munching on movie popcorn and sipping an oversized soda. What better way to observe not only the foolishness of mortals, but also how great they can look in their underwear?
Because, not to give too much away, the lovers – that would be Hermia (played by film actress Christina Ricci) and Helena, and their doltish suitors Lysander and Demetrius – wind up in a spectacular cat-fight, or shall we call it a human-fight, as they sort out their conflicting romantic and sexual urges.
They wrestle, they claw, they climb, they punch, they choke, they practically fornicate. At some point, someone seems to receive a wedgie. In the end, aided by Puck, they're sprawled out fast asleep in front of us, stripped to their tighty whities. Boy, do they deserve a nap.
The scene, best described as slapstick devolving into utter mayhem, threatens to push the other amusing plot line – involving Titania, Oberon's queen, and her ill-placed love for Nick Bottom, the man with an ass's head – to the sidelines. Luckily, Titania, played by the ridiculously youthful-looking Bebe Neuwirth, is also played with sex in mind. First there's her outfit: a black bodysuit, sheer fishnets, leather boots. Why is she decked out like a trapeze artist? If you look like Neuwirth at 53, why the heck not?
And the production lets the actress mine the sexual potential in Titania's lines. You might recall that when Titania falls for Bottom, thanks to Oberon's machinations, she invites him to "sit down on this flowery bed, While I thy amiable cheeks do coy." But did you remember that at the time, she's admiring his backside? Neither did we.
And in case the Bard didn't make clear what Titania does with Bottom while they're together, we get the sound effects. Let's just say the donkey's familiar cry of "Hee Haw!" takes on new meaning here.
Director Tony Speciale and set designer Mark Wendland are to be commended for their inventive set, mainly a mirrored back wall that's angled so as to provide a wonderful aerial view. The wall bears openings through which unseen hands occasionally pass things to the actors – like the popcorn and sodas – something like a fairyland drive-thru window.
Andrea Lauer's costumes, too, are clever – from the outlandishness of Puck's many outfits (a pink elephant suit, for example, or a tight-fitting striped number with an afro-like hairdo that looks like it dropped in from "Priscilla Queen of the Desert") or the biker chic of Oberon. The four lovers, on the other hand, look like they stepped out of a Ralph Lauren catalog: the males are prepped out in polo shirts, sweaters tossed over shoulders and white deck shoes, the females in nude wedges and short summery skirts.
There's also a very funny entrance for some Vuitton luggage, and rose petals galore – and we mean bushels full, burying Titania at one point for quite a while (we assume Neuwirth has no allergies).
Speaking of Neuwirth, she also plays Hippolyta, a much more understated part than Titania, and her low-pitched voice (think Lilith on "Frasier") makes for an even subtler delivery. Anthony Heald plays a regal Theseus, but has much more fun as the leather-garbed Oberon.
On the topic of fun, the so-called Mechanicals have more success being actually funny than in many productions. As Nick Bottom, Steven Skybell has a drawn-out death scene that induces hysterics in the audience; David Greenspan is a sweet and droll Francis Flute.
Taylor Mac as an especially zany Puck veers off book early and often, as when he tells the audience they should feel free to applaud after a song – "it took a lot of effort." And kudos to the four lovers – Ricci, Nick Gehlfuss, Halley Wegryn Gross, and Jordan Dean – for truly committing themselves to the over-the-top nature of the evening.
"This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard," says Hippolyta, when watching the play-within-a-play at the end. She may as well be referring to the whole production. But that's the point of Shakespeare's comedy, isn't it? This is the stuff that entertaining evenings are made of.