Oak Park Festival Theatre

Shakespeare in the park. Shakespeare in the basement. Shakespeare in the storefront. Shakespeare is as much a part of summer as day camp, fireworks, and baseball. By now the plays are so familiar that having actors perform them is hardly even necessary; you could just assemble the audience in a park and pass around the microphone, and they could perform the entire play by rote. It could be like the crowd at a Springsteen concert singing the words to “Hungry Heart.”

The fact that three local theater companies have chosen to stage Shakespeare productions during the summer months doesn’t say a whole lot for their creativity, but there is something refreshing about each of the productions. They are evidence that the era of modernizing and monkeying about with Shakespeare is just about over. Like so many other art forms that have turned their backs on 80s excesses, these productions have opted for the stripped-down, back-to-basics approach, proving that you don’t have to put the Bard in Reeboks and a starter jacket to make him accessible. Exit the age of Shakespeare with gizmos and gadgets and three-piece suits. Enter Shakespeare unplugged.

By far the best of the summer Shakespeare crop is Oak Park Festival Theatre’s faithful and exceedingly professional Romeo and Juliet, directed by Tom Mula. In the shadows of the tall trees of Oak Park’s Austin Gardens under a night sky filled with stars (well, three or four of them anyway), the voices of the star-crossed lovers mingle with the chirps of birds and crickets, effectively transporting the viewer over the walls of Verona and into Shakespeare’s tragic fairy-tale landscape.

This is quintessential summer Shakespeare–women in heavy dresses, men in tights, masterful swordplay, and truly excellent actors, whose flawless diction and delivery bring out every nuance of Shakespeare’s text, allowing the audience to completely forget about the annoyingly overmiked sound system. James Krag and Mary MacDonald Kerr make a splendid, ageless all-American Romeo and Juliet who convey all their characters’ youthful exuberance and folly without sacrificing the maturity of the language.

The most exciting performance of the play comes from Philip E. Johnson, whose brash, swaggering, lusty Mercutio plays like a dashing silver-screen swashbuckler a la Douglas Fairbanks Jr. or Errol Flynn. He’s the first Mercutio I’ve seen who you don’t want to shut up in the middle of the “Queen Mab” speech, and when he’s offed shortly after the intermission the production suffers from his loss.

Purists might bemoan Mula’s slicing of certain sections of the play, most notably the elimination of the poison-vending apothecary and the final duel between Romeo and Paris, but the lost sections are not missed and the editing helps keep the play moving along. And in a play so familiar that large sections of the audience can be seen moving their lips along with Juliet, pacing is critical.

The jaded Shakespeare observer might find the last part of the final act tedious to watch, as the play spirals inexorably into its tearful conclusion. But for anyone who has seen the play fewer than five times this is a must-see. It’s one of those uncommon productions where everything–acting, set, lighting, weather–combine to create an almost perfect theatrical experience.


Equity Library Theatre Chicago

at Chicago Dramatists Workshop

Equity Library Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream also avoids the pitfalls of many a modern Shakespeare production. Their secret? Eliminating that most heinous of theatrical afflictions, the bugaboo that more than anything else has been responsible for destroying Shakespeare’s plays–the director. Using what they call the “free Shakespeare” concept, each of Equity Library’s actors “con their parts” independently and, after some rehearsal, essentially improvise the play in front of an audience, so that “the actors and audience discover the play together in performance.”

The effect is undeniably exhilarating. The looseness of the production helps keep many of Shakespeare’s shopworn comedic devices fresh. This Midsummer is probably the lightest, airiest, and funniest I have ever seen; even though it’s performed indoors in the air-conditioned Chicago Dramatists Workshop space, it feels like Shakespeare in the park.

What makes this production so successful is that the cast enjoy themselves so much onstage. Never have the ridiculous, partner-swapping lovers been more humorous; never has Puck been such an appealing, hilarious wiseass. The story of Pyramus and Thisby–which is supposed to be the comic relief–is far less funny than what it’s supposed to be relieving us from.

The improvisational approach does have its problems, though–sloppiness and overacting that probably could have been counteracted by, um, a director. Seriously: it might have been nice to have someone who could have reined in some of the shameless mugging, axed certain elements of stage business that upstage the principal actors, and told Theseus to learn his damn lines. But Equity Library performs admirably, and sloppy and entertaining is preferable to professional and dull.


Actors Center of DuPage

at Illinois Benedictine College

The worst of the lot is the Actors Center of DuPage’s Macbeth, which, although thankfully devoid of a “concept,” also lacks any good ideas. Jeffrey Baumgartner’s production has the three witches looking and acting like members of the band Kiss, including a Gene Simmons-like display in which stage blood is licked off a post. Cast members routinely blow or garble lines, cues are missed, props are heard dropping offstage, and actors cart around superfluous spotlights and shine them shakily on performers who are already illuminated. And it’s tough to keep a staight face when Macbeth comes out dressed on the bottom with Zubaz pants and on the top like my aunt’s couch.

Aside from Rich Richards’s Banquo and Mara Polster’s Lady Macduff, which are convincing and professional portrayals, performances range from talented and misdirected (as in the case of Kevin Wade’s howling Macduff) to woefully amateurish. Most glaringly inadequate is Henry Bolzon as a bumbling Macbeth; he stammers over far too many of his lines and paces back and forth contemplating the murder of King Duncan like Darren Stevens on Bewitched fretting over whether he should ask Larry Tate for a raise. Audience members are forced to pass the three hours tallying the number of times the actors screw up their lines, contemplating the long trip home from Lisle, and listening astutely for any obscure sexual references they might have missed in their English lit class.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin-Jennifer Girard Studio.