It is perhaps a sign of programming genius that the team at Chicago Shakespeare Theater slotted the whimsical comedy delight A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the middle of a long, cold, dark Chicago winter. The playful production, directed by Joe Dowling and playing through January 27, will transport you from the blustery gusts off the lake at the Navy Pier theater to a fanciful forest populated by mischievous fairies and misdirected lovers. It’s a romp that’s familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of Shakespeare’s classics, and in this world-class production set in contemporary Athens, it’s another of the Bard’s works that comes to mind: indeed, all’s well that ends well.
At the outset of our tale, the thrust stage of the Courtyard Theater begins as a sleek marble courtyard outside Theseus’s (Edward O’Blenis) grand estate, where he’s just announced his engagement to his dear Hippolyta (Alexandra Silber). In storms a very upset Egeus (William Dick), determined to keep his daughter Hermia (Melisa Soledad Pereya) from marrying Lysander (Tyrone Phillips), the man she loves, and forcing her instead to take the hand of Demetrius (Eric Schabla), who is desperately wanted by her childhood friend, Helena (Cristina Panfilio). Given the option to heed her father’s orders or die (yep, die), Hermia instead crafts a plan with Lysander to decamp to the forest outside the city where they can run away together to a village where Athens’ laws can’t reach them. Helena gets word of the plan and decides to tell Demetrius, who will be so grateful for the insight that he’s sure to change his mind and fall for Helena after all.
Meanwhile, a motley troupe of “actors” gathers to plan the scene they’ll perform at the celebration following Theseus’ and Hippolyta’s wedding, Peter Quince (Joe Demspey) assigning roles in a play-within-a-play about star-crossed lovers. There’s the Old Style-swilling Snug (William Dick playing double duty); Snout (Jonathan Butler-Duplessis), in his Chicago White Sox jersey and Beats headphones; Francis Flute (Alec Silver) as a sort of petulant teen who hides in his hoodie; Starveling (Sara Sevigny), who means well in her fumbling through rehearsals; and of course Nick Bottom (T.R. Knight), an endearingly bombastic wanna-be thespian who’s so sure of his abilities he offers to play every role in the show. In order to rehearse without distraction, the crew plans to meet in the very same forest where our lovers are headed.
And here, as these two ensembles make their way away from the confines of the city, comes the most impressive effect of the evening, as the stage is transformed into a dreamlike landscape of oversized flowers and fauna where Titania (also Silber) reigns as Queen of the fairies, at odds with her king, Oberon (also O’Blenis) over the fate of a young changeling. The transition is so seamless, a glittering, imaginative use of lighting, space and acrobatics that it elicited well-deserved applause at Friday’s opening night performance. The production team responsible for the show’s appearance—scenic designer Todd Rosenthal, and lighting designers Greg Hofmann and Jesse Klug—outdo themselves (and perhaps anything else you’ll see on a Chicago stage this season); the lighting in particular is as lovely, layered and thoughtful as any of Shakespeare’s own verses, an impressive feat for an aspect of theater production that isn’t often the standout of any show.
As the bulk of the play unfolds in the forest, we finally meet Puck (Sam Kebede), right hand to Oberon and a playful, impish fairy who’s meant to place a magical herb on Demetrius’s eyes so that he might actually fall for long-suffering Helena. Of course, he mixes up his mission and instead finds Lysander in the forest, setting into motion a comedy of errors that sees Lysander fall for Helena, Helena not believe any of it, Hermia rage against Helena for stealing her man, and Lysander and Demetrius almost come to blows over it all. The four actors of this romantic mess deftly deliver Shakespeare’s couplets with a youthful effect, ensuring that both the humor and weight of the proceedings get their due from contemporary ears. Certain lines play like a moment out of a modern sitcom (“The Office” comes to mind), and whether this was a conscious choice by Dowling and team or an organic approach from actors who’ve come up with Michael Scott and his ilk doesn’t really matter. It works as a wonderfully 21st century sort of approach to a 400-year-old play.
Elsewhere in the forest, Titania wakes from a nap with Oberon’s love potion on her eyes, first glimpsing Bottom, himself victim to Puck’s trickery having been turned into an ass. Literally. Knight (best known for his role as George on the long-running TV drama “Grey’s Anatomy”) plays Bottom with comic abandon, initially bumbling and stuttering his way through Titania’s advances only to come to happily embrace his new role as consort to the Queen. Probably not by accident, he’s landed the choicest role of an ensemble comedy, his over-the-top turn as Pyramus in that play-within-a-play a complete showstopper. His every instinct is spot-on and his energy, pacing and commitment raise the bar for the entire company (which, happily, they rise to meet).
It’d be a sad state of affairs if Chicago’s own Shakespeare-centric theater couldn’t pull off a solid production of one of the writer’s most beloved plays. Thankfully, Chicago Shakespeare Theater here continues its run of inventive, imaginative, impressive productions with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, beautifully and hilariously realized and highly recommended as a bit of extravagant escapism this winter.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs through January 27 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier; a full performance schedule and tickets are available online here.
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