Review: Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

A scene from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” now playing at various Chicago parks as part of the Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks tours through Aug. 26. – Daniel Ribar

RECOMMENDED

Where: various Chicago parks (including Garfield Park Aug. 15 and Piotrowski Park,4247 W. 31st St., Aug. 23)
When: through Aug. 26
Tickets: free
For more information: www.chicagoshakes.com/parks

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

During the pre-show announcements for the performance of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Eckhart Park, the actress playing Helena came out on stage and asked people who were seeing a Shakespeare play for the first time to raise their fans (which had been given out with programs and had the Bard’s image on them). Quite a few went up.

And just before the show started, she encouraged the audience not to become discouraged if the language sounded foreign: Their ears would soon get used to it.

In case you hadn’t guessed, the Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks program is aimed at newbies in the hopes perhaps of turning them on to theater in general and/or Shakespeare in particular. Artistic Director Barbara Gaines has trimmed the comedy to 75 minutes or so, amped up the sound, peppered it with hip hop and other contemporary pop, and packed in a passel of local references, starting with the fact that Theseus (Kevin Gudahl) is no longer the Duke of Athens but rather the mayor of our city.

It’s all in good fun, even if it’s likely to annoy purists and doesn’t always make logical sense. For example, the rustics, dubbed “Chicago workers,” head to Garfield Park—locations are indicated by banners—for their final preparations to entertain the duke, er mayor, and his bride Hippolyta (Jasmine Bracey), and from there, one of them says he can see the wedding party assembling at Buckingham Fountain, which would be impossible.

To her credit, Gaines’ cuts haven’t done the essence of “Midsummer” any real harm, especially since parts of the full play can be pretty tedious. She’s also incorporated the doubling that I believe is essential, with the same actors playing Oberon and Titania as Theseus and Hippolyta, and Cage Sebastian Pierre as both Philostrate at court, now City Hall, and a wonderfully mischievous Puck in the forest, or rather, parks.

Puck’s glittery purple punk outfit and wig are eye catchers, as are many of the costumes by designer Mieka van der Ploeg’s, among them the ass head for Bottom (Adam Wesley Brown through Aug. 19; Sean Fortunato starting Aug. 21), though he could use a tail, too. An amusing nod to the audiences of today is Puck’s consternation at trying to figure out what “formal attire” means as he attempts to follow Oberon’s instructions regarding the young people.

The plight of the two couples is one of the three main plot lines, along with the workers’ rehearsals of “Pyramus and Thisbe,” and Oberon’s plan to get Titania’s changeling boy by making her fall in love with some vile thing, to wit the transformed Bottom. At the outset, Hermia (Faith Servant) has been promised by her father (Jarrett King) to Demetrius (Tyrone Phillips), but she loves Lysander (Christopher Sheard) instead. Faced with the prospect of death or banishment to a convent if she disobeys her dad, she and Lysander decide to flee—to his aunt’s house in Gary, Ind. Meanwhile, Helena (Laura Rook) is in love with Demetrius, who scorns her though they were previously engaged, and she hopes to get back into his good graces by revealing Hermia and Lysander’s intent.

They all get lost, and thanks to Puck’s interference, their affections get misplaced. Gaines eliminates some of the ensuing arguments and wanderings but keeps the best bits, such as Hermia and Helena’s fight over their respective heights, here augmented by part of Randy Newman’s “Short People,” which frankly seems to be stacking the deck. Unfortunately, the escalating shrillness doesn’t serve the lovers well, and these scenes would benefit from more subtlety and less shouting.

The tendency to overdo things arguably underestimates the audience and is the main flaw of Chicago Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but overall the play and the production lend themselves extremely well to a pleasant summer evening in the park. Gaines has changed the ending a bit, but like so much else here, the spirit of harmony and inclusiveness are true to the original.