A crowd-pleaser: Chicago Shakespeare modernizes its merry 'Midsummer Night's Dream'

 
 
Updated 12/20/2018 10:48 AM
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  • The donkey-transformed Bottom (T.R. Knight) embraces the spellbound fairy queen Titania (Alexandra Silber) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's new production of the comedy "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

    The donkey-transformed Bottom (T.R. Knight) embraces the spellbound fairy queen Titania (Alexandra Silber) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's new production of the comedy "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Courtesy of Liz Lauren/Chicago Shakespeare Theater

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- ★ ★ ★

Try not to think too seriously about the logic behind Chicago Shakespeare Theater's modernized take on "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Besides, director Joe Dowling's production is so entertainingly diverting and dashing that it's easy to toss aside initial qualms.

This "Midsummer" is a rollicking romp thanks to a feast of vibrant visuals, plus a very energetic ensemble. Celebrity watchers should note that Broadway and TV veteran T.R. Knight of "Grey's Anatomy" fame is in the cast, and he acquits himself quite nicely as the boastful amateur actor Nick Bottom, who gets transformed into an amorous donkey.

A major plot strand of "Midsummer" hinges around the dreaded "Athenian law" that gives a father the right to have his daughter executed if she refuses to marry the suitor of his choice. That's the dilemma faced by Hermia (Melisa Soledad Pereyra), who is in love with Lysander (Tyrone Phillips). But her unrelenting father, Egeus (William Dick), prefers Demetrius (Eric Schabla), who is the object of affection of Hermia's best friend, Helena (Cristina Panfilio).

The donkey-transformed Bottom (T.R. Knight) becomes a love object to the fairy queen Titania (Alexandra Silber), on bed, as the "First Fairy" (Adrienne Storrs) watches in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
The donkey-transformed Bottom (T.R. Knight) becomes a love object to the fairy queen Titania (Alexandra Silber), on bed, as the "First Fairy" (Adrienne Storrs) watches in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." - Courtesy of Liz Lauren/Chicago Shakespeare Theater

To reflect this harsh premise, Dowling contemporaneously sets his "Midsummer" at what looks to be a U.S. Military Academy -- complete with an imposing marbleized set by designer Todd Rosenthal that recalls funerary monuments near our nation's capital. It's a very regimented world with commanders and cadets all in dress uniforms (a sharp touch by costumer Fabio Toblini). But would such a locale today really sanction such patriarchal violence?

Never mind. Soon enough the fairy realm casts its spell with lush lighting designed by Greg Hofmann and Jesse Klug and a spectral soundscape designed by Christopher M. LaPorte. Plus there's a contemporary soundtrack by composer Keith Thomas that refashions Shakespearean poetry recalling song hits from the past century (Adrienne Storrs as the "First Fairy" gets to do most of the polished pop vocalizing).

The fairy king Oberon (Edward O'Blenis) deploys a love ointment to seek revenge on the fairy queen, Titania (Alexandra Silber), in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
The fairy king Oberon (Edward O'Blenis) deploys a love ointment to seek revenge on the fairy queen, Titania (Alexandra Silber), in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." - Courtesy of Liz Lauren/Chicago Shakespeare Theater

All is not well between the magical monarchs Oberon (Edward O'Blenis) and Titania (Alexandra Silber), who are sparring over the guardianship of an Indian orphan. Out of spite, Oberon commands his loose-cannon henchman, Puck (Sam Kebede), to find a magic love flower to eventually humiliate his fairy queen.

Into this mix wanders the "rude mechanicals" -- workers rehearsing a "tragedy" for a wedding celebration. Though they're all clearly clueless, director Dowling and his cast do not condescend too much to their grand stage ambitions.

Puck (Sam Kebede), left, laughs as Lysander (Tyrone Phillips) restrains Hermia (Melisa Soledad Pereyra) from attacking Helena (Cristina Panfilio) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Puck (Sam Kebede), left, laughs as Lysander (Tyrone Phillips) restrains Hermia (Melisa Soledad Pereyra) from attacking Helena (Cristina Panfilio) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." - Courtesy of Liz Lauren/Chicago Shakespeare Theater

It's a marvel at how cleverly Shakespeare constructed "Midsummer," especially with all these comedic balls being juggled all at once. Dowling and his collaborators all clearly have fun keeping everything aloft, with plenty of wowing special effects and standout sequences.

There's a thrilling physical ferocity to the iconic lovers quarrel where the men's affections have both been magically diverted and the women turn on each other. The mechanicals' play-within-a-play of "Pyramus and Thisbe" is the hilarious fiasco it needs to be, though the serious turn near the end rightly gives the many newlyweds mocking the performance some uncomfortable pause.

The fairy realm featuring the "First Fairy" (Adrienne Storrs), center top, and Puck (Sam Kebede), center bottom, materializes in the Athenian woods in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
The fairy realm featuring the "First Fairy" (Adrienne Storrs), center top, and Puck (Sam Kebede), center bottom, materializes in the Athenian woods in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." - Courtesy of Liz Lauren/Chicago Shakespeare Theater

In addition to the questionable modern setting, Dowling's take on "Midsummer" could be faulted for glossing over the life-or-death stakes underpinning many of the characters' confusion and desperation. The happy conclusion always feels foregone. But with all the comedic clockwork running so smoothly and precisely, this "Midsummer" proves itself as a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

• • •

Location: Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Courtyard Theater at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago, (312) 595-5600 or chicagoshakes.com

Showtimes: Select performances: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (also 6:30 p.m. select Sundays); through Jan. 27

Running time: About 2 hours 30 minutes with intermission

Tickets: $48-$88

Parking: Adjacent pay garage; discount with validated ticket

Rating: Some skimpy costumes, but largely for general audiences

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