Review by Karen Topham; photos by Dirk Topham
Having recently moved into the city, I decided to indulge myself with a two-night immersion into one of its rich traditions: Shakespeare in the Park. First stop: Winnemac Park for Shakespeare’s Motley Crew’s sixth compilation of scenes they call “Midsummer Mayhem.” Shakespeare’s Motley Crew has been performing full-length plays and compilations of scenes since 1992; this year’s theme is “Prophecies”–a term they use loosely, as any seemingly predetermined set of circumstances will fit. Thus they can include Macbeth’s witches, Julius Caesar’s soothsayer, and even Teiresias from guest artist Sophocles’ Oedipus The King alongside of the “star-crossed lovers” Romeo and Juliet and Malvolio from Twelfth Night. It makes for a fun hour’s entertainment with a lot of variety. There is laughter, love, and (yes) mayhem in the form of both fisticuffs and swordplay. More on that in a bit.
First, it must be said that this is an enjoyable troupe of players to watch. This may not be big-budget Shakespeare (far from it) but the actors are well-trained and sincere in their efforts and performances. And the often gender-blind casting (a scene from As You Like It is complicated enough without a man playing a woman playing a man, even if that’s how they did it in the Bard’s time) adds to the richness of the event: having females playing MacDuff, Teiresias, Benvolio and others adds layers and subtracts nothing. Director William Sidney Parker and his AD Adam Rice wring some remarkable performances from their troupe.
Highlights include that scene from Julius Caesar, which SMC blends together with the poet Cinna’s public beating for allegedly taking part in the conspiracy. The combination of the prophecy with its aftermath creates a dynamic juxtaposition that adds intensity to both, and William Bennett’s fight choreography in this scene sets the stage for some excellent fight work all night long. Scenes involving hand to hand combat, especially, are uniformly excellent. Swordplay is a bit more tentative, which works beautifully when it is played for laughs, as in the opening of R&J, though can seem a bit stiff when the scene is more serious. Fortunately, SMC seems to understand this and tosses away the swords for such critical moments as the final scene of Macbeth, when the wonderful Sierra Buffum as MacDuff defeats David Moreland’s title character in a bout that seems all the more realistic for being played just feet from the audience.
It isn’t all fighting, though. There is plenty of opportunity for love and comedy as well. The Romeo and Juliet scenes feature North Homeward and Addison Lewis as the briefly happy couple. They are deeply touching (as well as funny) in their meeting scene and even moreso in the “morning after” scene that we know is the last time they will see each other. (Full disclosure: Homeward is my son.) In the Twelfth Night scene, Ross Childs’ Malvolio is a hoot, as are the three onlookers (Dennis Henkels, Ali Donnelly and Erin Gallagher) hiding behind a thin branch representing a “box tree.” It is a brilliant and imaginative bit of staging. And for dramatic performance, it’s difficult to beat Laura Jones Macklin’s powerful Teiresias.
This is not polished, highbrow Shakespeare. It’s the Bard raw, coarse, and powerfully emotional. It cuts down to the core of some of his most intense creations and shows them to us in unusual, sometimes overlapping scenes. Macbeth’s body, for example, lies onstage for the final scene of Hamlet, creating a visual prophecy there as well as Hamlet’s spoken one (“The readiness is all”). Little touches like that abound throughout the performance as the Motley Crew delivers an hour of Shakespeare that captures the imagination of the audience. There may be little in the way of production value (though musical intros to each scene add some color), but this little company is true to the spirit and words of Shakespeare, and that’s the most important thing of all.
Midsummer Mayhem is a free Shakepeare’s Motley Crew production now playing at Winnemac Park, 5100 N. Leavitt, Chicago, August weekends Friday through Sunday. Performances begin at 7:00; check the website at Shakespeare’s Motley Crew. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.