Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Dirk Topham.
For the second consecutive evening, I ventured out to a neighborhood park to watch Shakespeare. This time it was Welles Park for a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre for the seventh season of Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks. I had high expectations and the 75-minute abridged production, directed by CST Artistic Director Barbara Gaines, did not disappoint. Featuring a lot of music (pop, R&B, rap, rock, even classical) and topical Chicago references along with excellent performances, this is Shakespeare as the Bard intended: fun and accessible for the crowd on the Green. The large audience loved it; even the children were enthralled.
And why not? To begin with, Gaines chose one of Shakespeare’s silliest plays, the story of four young lovers (along with a group of not very bright working class Chicagoans trying to put on a play for the nuptials of Mayor Theseus (Kevin Gudahl) and Hippolyta (Jasmine Bracey) being caught in the woods by a third group: mischievous fairies. Of course, chaos ensues: with the help of fairy love magic, the two men are both made to fall for the same girl and one of the men, given the head of an ass, is left for the Fairy Queen herself (also Bracey) to fall for. It’s all goofy fun, especially when we finally get to see the play the workman-players have concocted.
In addition to selecting the perfect script to entrance a park crowd on a “midsummer night,” Gaines, directing one of these events for the first time, embellishes it with all sorts of up-to-the-minute topicality. The players producing what they call “A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus and his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth”—Pyramus and Thisbe is part of the source material for another Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet, so not particularly mirthful whatsoever… unless you don’t know what you’re doing—are a group of die-hard Cubs fans excited over their team’s performance. They even managed on Saturday night to get a dig in on White Sox Tim Anderson’s failure to score from first on a double earlier in the day. Talk about up-to-the-minute topicality!
All of the forest mayhem is initiated by purple-haired fairy Puck (Cage Sebastian Pierre), a playful sprite who, both accidentally and on purpose, manages to set the mortals’ worlds spinning for a night. Ordered by his king Oberon (Gudahl) to use a magical herb to set things right between Demetrius (Tyrone Phillips) and the woman whom he has forsaken, Helena (a truly wonderful Laura Rook), Puck manages to give the herb instead to Lysander (Christopher Sheard), who is in the woods running away with his own fiancée Hermia (Faith Servant). All of a sudden both men love Helena and poor Hermia is left utterly baffled.
Pierre is brilliant as Puck, rapping his lines (who knew Shakespeare was so up on modern culture?) and orchestrating fairy music to set the mood for the lovers’ confusion. All of the lovers are very strong, though Rook, in arguably the showiest role, stands out as the woman scorned who suddenly finds herself admired and assumes it is a terrible joke being played on her, who shines the brightest. Servant, in the exact opposite role, is also great: her consternation at suddenly finding her doting fiancé in love with someone else is hilarious.
In the role of the chief workman-player, Bottom, Adam Wesley Brown is a hoot whether trying to usurp every role in the scene, meeting the Fairy Queen with an ass’s head affixed over his own (and wonderfully braying his own laughter), or playing Pyramus as a muscle-shirted goof. The rest of the “fools” involved in this scene (Lane Anthony Flores, Danielle Davis, Richard Costes, and Hannah Starr along with Jarrett King as Peter Quince, their nominal leader) are equally adept, and the farcical Pyramus and Thisbe scene is, as it should be, a delight.
This production, which involves the audience directly to a significant extent, is perfect for a summer diversion, as it is intended both by the Bard and by Gaines. She is able to capture here the ludicrous frivolity of Shakespeare’s confection in her own impressive abridgement of the usually two-and-a-half-hour play. It is a superb introduction to Shakespeare for the uninitiated and a joyous evening for those who know his work. Besides, you get to spend a midsummer evening out in a park being entertained, and there is never anything at all wrong with that.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a Chicago Shakespeare Theatre production now playing in parks across Chicago, until August 26. Performance times vary; check the website at Chicago Shakespeare Theater for schedule of locations and times. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.