A Midsummer Night’s Dream
At Chicago Shakespeare Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –Some day we may see a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as Shakespeare wrote it. That production will honor the classic’s remarkable multilayered comic plot and gorgeous poetry, minus all the high concept embellishments inflicted on the original which disrupt the Bard’s original brilliance yet remain all the fashion today.
That day may come, but it has not come in the revival at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. What audiences are fed is a staging in which characters take selfies, exchange fist bumps, and sing doo wop and rock ‘n’ roll, as well as flooding the stage with relentless slapstick. Many members of the opening night audience displayed inexhaustible tolerance for all the frantic low comedy action on the CST stage. For me, with a few happy exceptions, it was a very long sit as the Bard’s masterpiece was put through the visual and audio wringer.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” weaves four storylines together, ranging from realism to fantasy. Six comical blue color workmen (the “rude mechanicals”) mingle with fairies in an enchanted forest. There are romantic entanglements among four sets of couples—young and mature, real and fanciful. It’s a full plate of rich characterizations that Shakespeare maneuvers superbly. The poetry is a compendium of Shakespearean famous quotes (”What fools these morals be” and “The course of true love never did run smooth” among the most familiar).
The story begins with the confusions involving Hermia and Helena and Demetrious and Lysander in the domain of the Duke of Athens. Hermia’s father has promised the girl to Demetrius who really loves Lysander. The couple flee into a nearby forest pursued by Demetrius and Helena, who loves Demetrius. There, the four are discovered by Oberon, king of the fairies, who is having his own problems with Titania, his queen. Enter the merry fairy sprite Puck, who at Oberon’s bidding tries to reverse the polarities of the Athenian love affairs with a magic potion. Puck only adds to the confusion which eventually engulfs Titania, who is coerced into falling madly in love with a weaver named Bottom. He is in the forest with the other rude mechanicals rehearsing a play they want to present to Oberon and Hippolyta at their wedding feast in Athens.
The audience needs a scorecard to follow the misadventures and enchantments that disrupt the various romantic connections until everything beautifully comes together at the end of the show. Shakespeare is not always the greatest of plot organizers, but in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” he is a magician.
What guest director Joe Dowling and his team of designers bring to the production is a revisionist approach that sees nothing wrong with injecting modern references to the enchanted world of the play. One of the fairies does a fair Cher impersonation and a group of fairies performs a production number straight from a Las Vegas hotel stage. Hermia and Helena and Demetrious and Lysander dash in confusion through the forest in their skivvies. What all these “improvements” contribute to presenting a unified vision of the comedy eluded me. The two young couples demonstrate much stamina in their dithering, gymnastic moves, and shrill hollering, but to what end?
A more unsettling problem is the quality of the ensemble, several making their CST debuts. The delivery of Shakespeare’s verse is uneven, generally with the females coming off better than the males. Some of the key performers are stilted in their speech, diluting Shakespeare’s lush poetry. Bluntly speaking, proven performers in the Chicagoland acting pool would have been an upgrade.
There are some plusses. Television star T. R. Knight plays Bottom as an amiable if overconfident doofus, and his performance has a simplicity and warmth and amiability that departs from the overbearing and pompous Bottom we often see. In the otherwise interminable “Pyramus and Thisbe” scene that ends the play, Knight takes over the show with a splendid burst of lovable high energy silliness, demonstrating that manic comic acting can still be funny. Another fine performance comes from Alexandra Silber, who plays both Hippolyta and especially Titania with great comic style.
Among the supporting performers, Adrienne Storrs does her Cher dancing bits with much spirit as the lead fairy. In a more disciplined production, Melisa Soledad Pereyra (Hermia) and Cristina Panfilio (Helena) would have made a stronger impression, but their skills are there. Unfortunately, both young ladies are about the same height, killing a key comic point about Helena being much taller than Hermia.
Todd Rosenthal’s set design is dominated by images of giant exotic flowers that symbolize the enchantment of the forest. But a steeply raked cement looking half bowl at the back of the stage seemed tricky for the performers to navigate safely. The lighting by Greg Hofmann and Jesse Klug is impressively atmospheric. Fabio Toblini’s costume designs work for the exotic fantasy characters but the rude mechanicals wear nondescript items like sport shirts and a Chicago Bulls sweatshirt, puzzling apparel in the enchanted forest.
What can be said about Joe Dowling’s directing? Dowling is a premier international director and this is his 10th staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Dowling was apparently determined to make the 2018 CST revival a laugh riot and a large number of opening night spectators obviously will concur that he succeeded hilariously. It’s a desolate feeling sitting silently in a theater and grimacing inwardly at a production that spectators around you are rewarding with belly laughs and applause. I remain convinced that the production was fatally undercut by directing excesses and the limitations of too many of the leading actors. Still, the first nighters roared their approval. I just wish I saw the production they liked so much.
The show gets a rating of
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs through January 27 at the Chicago Shakespeare Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier. Tickets are $48 to $88. For the performance schedule call 312 595 5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. December 2018
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