For the past 18 years, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been in heavy rotation at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Counting the current mainstage production, there have been six Midsummers since 2000, a record that none of Shakespeare’s other 36 (that we know of) plays comes close to approaching.
Director Joe Dowling’s personal record is even more Midsummer-y: this is his tenth time directing Shakespeare’s romance of mismatched lovers and meddlesome fairies. Whether Chicago needs yet another Midsummer is debatable. But there’s no arguing that Midsummer enjoys preferential status in the House that Barbara Gaines Built.
It’s smart programming: Nobody in their right mind should promote Coriolanus or Titus Andronicus as the feel-good hit of the holiday season. Instead of battlefields and infanticide, Midsummer has saucy fairies and sassy ingénues. It has rambunctious girl fights, a slapstick play-within-the-play, and a triple-wedding happy ending.
Visually, Dowling’s Midsummer plays up the comedy’s strengths, leaning into the fantastical. You can practically smell the money that’s been poured into Todd Rosenthal’s extraordinary set and Fabio Toblini’s lavish costume design. But when the sets and the costumes are more memorable than the characters or the story, you wind up with the theatrical version of cotton candy. And that’s what happens here. This Midsummer is inarguably beautiful. The actors hit their marks, make the text accessible, and nail the timing. But they are working in the service of the design elements rather than the other way around. When it’s done, you won’t recall the show’s substance so much as its surface.
The lights come up to reveal an Athenian court dominated by a massive marble (or marble-looking) wall that evokes Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” Like the fallen monument of the poem, the great wall of Athens topples to insignificance as the regimented world of the court morphs into an enchanted forest. The engineering at play here is awe-inspiring. Our perspective shifts: we’re looking at plant life as if through the eyes of insects, gazing up at flowers the size of houses sitting on stalks the size of redwoods. The effect is like a supersized Hieronymus Bosch painting, heightened by Greg Hofmann and Jesse Klug’s color- saturated lighting design.
Amid this riot of color, Toblini’s costumes still manage to stand out. The fairy folk sport body-baring creations that look like they came straight off the Victoria’s Secret runway. There’s copious skin flashing between strategically placed feathers, chains, and harness-like contraptions, and there are more six-packs on display than in a frat house fridge during rush week (which I mention because the costumes so clearly intend to showcase this musculature). The four mortals lost in the woods appear to have lost most of their clothes: the girls wear colorless sports bras and briefs, while the boys are in boxers and T-shirts. The lack of clothing emphasizes the contrast between the regimented rules of the Athenian court and the wild chaos of the bewitched forest. The court is dominated by men in military dress, complete with buttons lined up as straight as parading soldiers. Once the characters reach the wild, clothes and inhibitions fly off.
The plot goes like this: Hermia (Melisa Soledad Pereyra) loves Lysander (Tyrone Phillips). Hermia’s father, Egeus (William Dick), says she has to marry Demetrius (Eric Schabla). Demetrius loves Hermia. Helena (Cristina Panfilio) loves Demetrius. The four lovers flee to the forest to sort out their various romantic entanglements. Hijinks ensue, orchestrated by the rascally, feathery Puck (Sam Kebede); the leather-clad fairy king Oberon (Edward O’Blenis); and his wife, Titania (Alexandra Silber). Also in the forest we have a group of tradesmen rehearsing a play, led by the ridiculously funny T.R. Knight as Nick Bottom, a weaver who fancies himself a brilliant actor (and is transformed into an ass).
Bits of the text spark with contemporary relevance: Egeus’s insistence that he can “dispose” of his daughter however he likes hits harder in the age of #MeToo. Oberon’s use of drugs to bewitch his sleeping wife is more menacing than fanciful now that consent is a national conversation. And when Titania speaks of pelting rivers that have “overborne their continents,” it’s an eerie reminder of the urgent peril of global warming.
Composer/music director Keith Thomas’s 1960s-inspired original music amplifies the contemporary edge that pops up intermittently in the dialogue. He’s enhanced the plot’s inherent quirkiness by incorporating pop chart-friendly song and dance numbers into the shenanigans, including a few classic C-A-minor-F-G7 chord progressions. (You know it: google “Heart and Soul.”) Many of these ditties are performed by undulating fairies (expertly choreographed by Joe Chvala) who seem like the supernatural kin to the Ronettes. The music adds a layer of mirth.
In all, Midsummer sounds great. It looks great. It will hold your attention. There is, to paraphrase Tim Gunn, a lot of look here. But it’s as substantial as pixie dust. Chicago Shakes has the means to go big with innovation and substance. Midsummer goes big, but mostly just on appearance. v