Goodman Theatre


Children’s Theatre at Second City

Picture Michael Maggio’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a miniature golf course. Not just any miniature golf course: a really cool miniature golf course, like the one in the mall on North Clybourn, where each hole’s designed by an artist and you find yourself putting around skeleton bones or across rooftops. A bright, hip, postmodern parody of a miniature golf course that kids the game even as it invites you to play it.

It occurred to me to say “subverts the game even as it invites you to play it.” But that’s awfully strong. Maggio’s too sweet-natured to actually undermine Shakespeare’s beloved romance about four Athenian adolescents who chase around in the woods, tripping over fairy magic before each falls into the right lover’s arms. That place on Clybourn may satirize miniature golf to some extent, but it also lets you enjoy the game itself. And so does Maggio.

Not that he’s completely harmless. In the first scene of the play, Theseus, the duke of Athens, speaks tenderly to his fiancee, Hippolyta, telling her how awfully glad he’ll be when four days have passed and they can be wed. Hippolyta assures him the days will fly by. I’ve never seen this exchange offered as anything other than an expression of shared bliss. Maggio, however, places it in a sleek executive office and plays it like a corporate merger. Theseus’ people whisper like diplomats; Hippolyta’s file in wearing power suits. The emphasis is clearly not on the duke’s endearments, but on the realpolitik implied in his comment to Hippolyta that “I wooed thee with my sword, / And won thy love doing thee injuries.”

However felicitously it’s described, in other words, the marriage is a matter of policy. A hostile takeover. When, just a few minutes further into the scene, Hippolyta expresses her silent solidarity with Hermia–one of the aforementioned Athenian adolescents, under compulsion to wed the man her father’s picked for her–we might suppose we’re in for a full-blown feminist critique of Shakespeare’s story.

But no–it’s only the first tee on the course. Maggio drops this dark analysis as soon as Hermia and her cohorts make their break for the woods–a Day-Glo-bright, heavily graffitied, playfully semiotic urban jungle called Magic City, where trees are denoted by plywood triangles labeled “tree,” where a bank of elevators brings characters on- and offstage, and where Titania, the fairy queen, sleeps in a pup tent festooned with strings of Christmas lights.

Magic City is pure miniature golf, full of fantastic and arbitrary conceits. The arbitrariness is something of a drag initially: especially after the clear focus of that first, feminist scene, it feels debilitating to be inundated with images bearing no apparent relationship either with what seemed to be the theme or with each other. I was put off for a while by the show’s strident whimsy.

My mood changed considerably, though, once I began to relax into Maggio’s vision. I still don’t know why he thought he should reimagine the Athenian forest in terms of urban street culture, or how he arrived at the notion of having Titania create a nightclub in which to bring off a seduction–or, for that matter, what gave him the nerve to carry a textual pun to the point of putting several flowery sofas onstage. But somewhere along the line I realized I didn’t need to know. This isn’t a production that’s going to make a whole lot of thematic sense. It seems to have been conceived more as a kind of aesthetic picaresque: a string of conceptual and visual adventures. Like a miniature golf course. You just play through.

Still, even a picaresque needs a unifying sensibility. If Maggio’s the hidden genius of this Dream, his strong and intelligent cast is more obviously present to guide us through Magic City. Ellen Jane Smith makes a dangerous Hermia: half Valley Girl, half ninja. Joan Cusack manages to elicit character as well as laughs from the slightly spazzy eccentricities she gives Hermia’s pal, Helena. Steve Pickering reminds me of the comic strip character Calvin in his Spaceman Spiff persona, as Robin Goodfellow–the famous Puck. Barbara E. Robertson’s seductive and canny as both Hippolyta and Titania. The marvelous confluence of scenic, costume, and lighting design is by John Conklin, Susan Hilferty, and Pat Collins.

The Maggio Dream may be miniature golf, but the Josephine Raciti Forsberg Dream is pure cartoon. Presented by the Children’s Theatre at the Second City, this much-edited and revised and fooled-with version plays like Saturday morning Shakespeare, complete with obligatory rap interludes. It’s as if Peter Quince, Bottom, and the other performing tradesmen from the original play somehow got hold of the script and mounted their own production of it. The rendition’s so clunky, the ensemble so unlikely, that it’s finally rather charming. John Keith Miller, by the way, makes an unusually poised Wall.