First Folio Theatre offers up family-friendly 'Midsummer' mirth
The magic of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is undeniable. William Shakespeare's perennially delightful comedy is a masterpiece of construction, tying together wildly disparate dramatic strands involving affection-switched lovers, supernaturally sparring fairies and ambitious amateurs performing an unintentionally hilarious take on a tragedy.
First Folio Theatre's current outdoor production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" isn't the most unified or daring in terms of approach. But the performances of the well-loved material are solid, even if some actors don't draw the drama as deeply from the text as they could.
Nonetheless, First Folio unquestionably gets the job done with "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- especially as breezy outdoor summer entertainment where you can spread out on blankets and nosh a picnic meal while the story unfolds.
Director Hayley Rice's production begins traditionally enough, especially with costume designer Elsa Hiltner cloaking the royal Athenian court of Duke Theseus (Michael Joseph Mitchell) and the reluctant Hippolyta (Johanna McKenzie Miller) in Renaissance-era clothes. Hiltner even symbolically hints at the early dramatic alliances by dressing stern Egeus (Gordon Chow) in similar greenish tones as Demetrius (Tony Carter), the man Egeus wants to marry his daughter, Hermia.
Egeus threatens the defiant Hermia (Sarah Wisterman) with death if she tries to marry the man she really loves, Lysander (T. Isaac Sherman). Hermia's dear friend, Helena (Ali Burch), has her own eyes on Demetrius. So, in an act of betrayal, Helena squeals to Demetrius about Lysander and Hermia's elopement plans.
Once the characters flee and pursue each other into the woods, the production's look changes. Curtains are drawn to emphasize set designer Angela Weber Miller's twisty tree branch patterning (she might have been going for psychedelic, but they look more art nouveau to me). Costumer Hiltner draws from a mélange of styles ranging from 1960s India-inspired hippie garb to 1980s new wave chic to clothe the supernatural fairy servants of King Oberon, who has problems of his own.
Oberon is arguing with his sex-withholding queen, Titania (Mitchell and Miller again, respectively doubling up in royal roles as in many a "Midsummer" production). Also doubling up well in dual roles is Chow, whose frustrated organizer Peter Quince gathers a group of fellow workmen (Shakespeare calls them "rude mechanicals") to perform the tragedy of "Pyramus and Thisbe" as a wedding entertainment. Dominating rehearsals is the boastful alpha male Nick Bottom (a very engaging Steve Peebles), who amusingly gets "translated" into donkey form as a practical joke by the mischievous fairy Puck (an energetic Sydney Germaine).
Director Rice opts not to overemphasize the sexually bawdy elements of Shakespeare's text -- particularly in the magic flower-inspired desires between Titania and Bottom or the mixed-up quartet of young lovers. In many cases, this is a lost opportunity for a string of ribald visual or physical gags, though Rice and her acting company still get laughs for their more dignified staging efforts.
Particularly enjoyable (and near-heartbreaking) is the shocked fight between Wisterman's Hermia and Burch's Helena when they are mistakenly led to believe that the other has betrayed their longtime friendship. Peebles' Bottom also gets a brief moment of sad loss when he wakes from what he interprets to be a bizarre dream.
The built-in naughty elements could be why educators steer clear of teaching "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in high schools. But as First Folio clearly shows with its sturdy and largely family-friendly production, this durable comedy is an ideal work to introduce newbies to the sheer fun and subversive genius of Shakespeare.
"A Midsummer Night's Dream"★ ★ ★
Location: First Folio Theatre at the Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook, (630) 986-8067 or firstfolio.org
Showtimes: 8:15 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday; through Aug. 14
Running time: About two hours with intermission
Parking: Nearby parking lots
Rating: Some played-down sexuality, but largely for general audiences