Like an unimaginative lover on Valentine’s Day, theater companies like to throw around rose petals. It’s always the same: a single petal drifts from the ceiling, then a second, then a flurry. At the Classic Stage Company’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the petals start when Bebe Neuwirth’s Titania asks her fairies for a lullaby. What starts as a gentle shower turns into a deluge, as though the petals were being sprayed by a leafblower, and finishes with the fairies dumping grocery bags full of them onto their queen. The solemn cliché turns to satire, and the audience chortles as Ms. Neuwirth drifts off to sleep, to spend the next few scenes buried under a six-inch pile of petals.
“Last night I had a hot flash while I was under there,” the actress said during an interview with The Observer last week. “Fifty-three-year-old women readers will know that it’s no fun having a hot flash under a bushel of petals. I was laughing at myself, thinking, ‘Oh, wow. I hope none of these petals melt into my flesh.’”
Hot flashes aside, Ms. Neuwirth looks every inch the fairy goddess. As the production rockets from slapstick to sublime, she is its anchor—a woodland monarch who maintains dignity no matter how silly she gets. This strikingly funny take on one of the world’s most-produced plays, which opens April 29, is only the latest in a string of sharp productions by a company whose imagination, A-list casts and impossibly scarce tickets have, in the past few years, won it a place at the top of the Off-Broadway hierarchy. If CSC ever falls from grace, it won’t be Bebe’s fault.
So devoted are the company’s subscribers—who number more now than ever before—that January’s production of Galileo, starring F. Murray Abraham, was sold out by opening night. Tickets for December’s The Cherry Orchard went just as quickly. A three-evening workshop series for Antony & Cleopatra featuring Kim Cattrall sold out before it was even announced, giving the press release little to do but mention, meekly, that “a waiting list will form each evening at 7 p.m. in the lobby.” It was an understatement when artistic director Brian Kulick said, “It’s been a very good couple of years for us.”
He’s managed to draw a succession of Hollywood stars—John Turturro, Jake Gyllenhall, Mandy Patinkin and Peter Sarsgaard—by letting them do more ambitious work than is possible on Broadway. Audiences follow not just to stargaze, but to enjoy the relaxed, modern style that has become CSC’s trademark.
“There is a real hunger within the acting community,” Mr. Kulick said, “to tackle a Chekhov or tackle a Shakespeare. Or for someone of Murray’s stature, you’ve climbed this mountain called Shylock—well there’s this other mountain called Galileo.” The audience watches with an attitude “of bloodsport,” he said, wondering if the marquee name will triumph or flop.
In CSC’s arena, Ms. Neuwirth holds her own. She’s done Shakespeare only once before—13 years ago—but found comfort under the low-key direction of Tony Speciale, a CSC assistant artistic director who insisted his cast approach the play as though it were new work. By emphasizing physicality, movement and song—things actors do when left to their own devices—he achieves the madcap energy more familiar in a college production with, of course, slightly better performances. Ms. Neuwirth, he said, “has been my muse.”
“I came to the table with some pretty crazy ideas, and she not only embraced all of them, but she then took it a step further.”
The conceit of this thoroughly unconceited production is that the characters introduced in the first scenes—a gang of shrill nitwits dressed for cocktail hour in the Hamptons—share a collective vision of fairies, mischief and madness in the forest. Before she dreams she is Titania, queen of the fairies, Ms. Neuwirth is Hippolyta, the Duke’s unhappy fiancée.
She approached the part from the vantage of dream analysis, asking herself a string of questions—“Why would she dream that she’s having this terrible argument with her mate, Oberon? Why would she dream that she has adopted a mortal boy? Why would she dream that she makes love to a donkey? Why would she do that?” She declined to answer these for The Observer, lest she “give away that energy that I have to keep inside.”
Ms. Neuwirth did offer that she is “fascinated by symbols,” explaining that she is “very strong” in Scorpio rising, and that Neptune “is very heavy in my sign,” giving her a balance between analysis and illusion.
“That’s my flaky reason why,” she said. “But my grounded reason is that I’m just interested in symbols and fantasy and the mystical aspect of why we do the things we do.”
As Hippolyta/Titania, she is the calm center of a giddy production that features a tricycle, lawn chairs and a pair of green Hulk hands. As the dream progresses, the quartet of lovers at the show’s heart, which includes Christina Ricci as Hermia, grows increasingly feral—and naked. Ms. Ricci has done almost no theater, and was plagued by stage fright during her (well-reviewed) Broadway debut, in 2010’s Time Stands Still. She’s found Midsummer “a very different show than I thought it would be.”
“You sign up for Shakespeare,” she said, “and then all of a sudden you’re doing acrobatics.” She imagines she was cast because of the 2006 film Black Snake Moan, in which “I ran around like a ferocious little creature in my underwear.”
During rehearsal, she and the other Shakespearean neophytes relied on the advice of Steven Skybell, who plays Bottom, teaches Shakespeare at Fordham, and has a name that would suit a sprite. He said Ms. Ricci had “a natural affinity for the language.” One of the first times he tried on Bottom’s trademark donkey head, Mr. Skybell passed the women’s dressing room and heard a flurry of barks coming from Karen Carpenter, a chihuahua-dachshund mix whom Ms. Ricci keeps backstage.
“She has one little toy and a duck,” Ms. Ricci said of her dog, “and she sits on any of the four ladies’ laps while we do our make-up, and people come and visit her.”
Mr. Speciale relies heavily on Ms. Ricci’s knack for physical comedy, turning a lengthy argument among Hermia, her rival Helena and the men they’re chasing into what children call a chicken fight. Ms. Ricci and her equally tiny counterpart, Halley Wegryn Gross, climb atop the shoulders of two nearly-identical strapping gingers, who race around the stage as the audience laughs so loudly that it’s hard to hear the dialogue. This has created a problem rare for classical theater: the scene is too funny.
“The fight is so strong that it can overpower the language,” said Mr. Speciale, who has worked to find a balance between slapstick and clarity. Younger audiences are “more vocal,” and their laughter can push that scene to a “high frenzied place.”
“It’s a challenge for the actors to stay grounded,” he said. “To not overproduce, to not add extra gimmicks or gags, because once you add a little joke here, it has a ripple effect and you can’t hear the language.”
On the night The Observer attended, a fire alarm set off by an overactive haze machine served to further drown out Shakespeare’s poetry. Only when the sound of sirens outside stopped the show did the audience stop laughing. Lying on the stage, Taylor Mac, as Puck, asked, “Does anyone know any campfire songs?”
Returning from a dinner meeting to watch the show’s second half, Mr. Kulick was surprised to see a gaggle of firemen tramping into his lobby. One turned to him and said, “Haze machine, right? We’ve seen this before.”
“The thing that makes the smoke,” Ms. Neuwirth said, “I guess we can’t put it up to 10.”
“In this production,” said Mr. Kulick, “10 fireman walking through wouldn’t seem strange. We’ve had fire alarms, we’ve had nude people walk onto our stage, we’ve had a burglar backstage that Murray Abraham had to wrestle to the ground. We’re used to at least once a year something unexpected happening.”
That was just a few days into previews, and the show has been tightened up since. But its ragged spirit reminded Ms. Neuwirth of her teenager years dancing ballet.
“No matter what the choreography was,” she said, “or what level you’re at as a dancer, that music is still there. It’s still Prokofiev. It’s still Tchaikovsky. It’s still Chopin. With Shakespeare it doesn’t matter that they’ve got beach chairs on the set, or that I’m dressed as a trapeze artist. That music is still there. It’s still Shakespeare.”
Of course it is. But not all Shakespeare earns belly laughs.