Review: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Transformed into a donkey by a spell, Nick Bottom (T.R. Knight) nuzzles the ecstatic fairy queen Titania (Alexandra Silber) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Joe Dowling, in the Courtyard Theater, December 6, 2018 – January 27, 2019. (Photo by Liz Lauren)


Where: Chicago
Shakespeare Theater, Courtyard Theater,
Navy Pier
When: through Jan. 27. 2019
Tickets: $48-$88
Phone: 312-595-5600

Theater Critic

How many times can a director revisit the same Shakespeare play and still have something new to say?

That question crossed my mind as I watched “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” directed by Joe Dowling at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. This is the tenth time that Dowling, artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis from 1995 to 2015, has tackled the comedy, and the second at Chicago Shakespeare, where he directed it during the company’s inaugural season on Navy Pier in 2000.

I described that staging as a “full frontal assault,” and the current one is, too. The specifics may be different, but it has a similar rock ‘n’ roll sensibility, eclectic musical score, and eye-popping design. I haven’t seen Dowling’s other eight productions, but I suspect he’s incorporating elements from them, too. The result is a mash-up that has its moments but doesn’t really hold together.

As in 2000, Athens is a modern military state run by Duke Theseus (Edward O’Blenis), and though it is not made quite clear enough, he has conquered Hippolyta (Alexandra Silber), Queen of the Amazons,   so she’s not too happy about her impending forced marriage. Demetrius (Eric Schabla) and Lysander (Tyrone Phillips) are young soldiers, and the lovers’ plot gets underway when Egeus (William Dick) implores the Duke to make his daughter Hermia (Melisa Soledad Pereyra) marry Demetrius rather than Lysander whom she loves. Given the choice of obeying her father, death, or becoming a nun, she and Lysander decide to run away into the woods. But she lets the plan slip to her childhood friend, Helena (Cristina Panfilio), who is in love with Demetrius and tells him, whereupon he goes off after the couple, and Helena after him.

All of this transpires in front of an austere doorway, and the “wow” moment of the evening is the way Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design transforms into a technicolor forest said to be inspired by Hieronymus Bosch but more reminiscent of a Rainforest Cafe or “The Little Shop of Horrors” with its gigantic flowers. The lighting design by Greg Hofmann and Jesse Klug ramps up the pyrotechnics—the flower whose juice Oberon (O’Blenis) uses is created with lighting, for example—as does the sound design by Christopher M. LaPorte, which features lots of clanging.

Fabio Toblini’s costumes range from the uniforms of the court and character-appropriate street clothes of the rude mechanicals to the wild Elizabethan take-offs and half-naked jungle chic of Oberon, Titania  (Silber), and her gender-bending fairies. Puck (Sam Kebede), also scantily attired, makes his entrance doing somersaults on a trapeze, and the forest folk entertain us with song and dance numbers in a variety of styles—rock, jazz, blues, 1950s doo-wop—with music by Keith Thomas and choreography by Joe Chvala.

These musical interludes, like much of the show up until the harmonious ending of the fairies blessing the palace and marriage bed, have an angry edge. The discord stems, of course, from the dispute between Oberon and Titania over the changeling boy she has and he wants. Frequently played by a child, here he is an infant (not a real one) in swaddling, and Dowling adds an unusual twist. Perhaps to help explain why Titania forgives Oberon for causing her to fall in love with an ass, the director has the King of the Fairies return the baby to his Queen after having won their fight.

One of the advertised assets of the show is that this ass, to wit Nick Bottom, is played by T.J. Knight of “Grey’s Anatomy” fame. Less a bossy, loud-mouthed braggart than many Bottoms I’ve seen, Knight is sort of an Everyman would-be thespian who is driven more by enthusiasm than ego to volunteer to play all the parts in the play-within-the-play of “Pyramus and Thisbe.” This makes his clashes with the impatient Peter Quince (Joe Dempsey) more grounded and his over-the-top death scene as Pyramus arguably funnier, though his time with Titania and the fairies isn’t as humorous as it could be. The one to watch in the play-within-the-play, though, is Alec Silver as the taciturn Francis Flute portraying Thisbe who, despite gowns and overblown wigs worthy of a really bad fashion show, manages to make her final moments moving.

Unlike the star-crossed Pyramus and Thisbe who become the evening’s entertainment for the Duke and his court, the others don’t die for love. They just get confused about whom they love, thanks to the fairy-flower juice misapplied by Puck. Stripped to their underwear when they enter the forest (an odd move that doesn’t really work), they run around trying to avoid or catch each other. I’ve seen hilarious versions of their heated arguments, but this isn’t one of them. Panfilio’s Helena hits her mark more than the others, though the fact that she isn’t taller than Pereyra’s Hermia robs the insults about their relative height of their thunder.

The rest of the acting, except for Silber, is rather disappointing. On opening night, O’Blenis flubbed some lines and was flat as both Theseus and Oberon, though Dowling earns points for keeping the obvious doubling for him, his Queen, and Philostrate/Puck. Unfortunately, Kebebe left me cold, except perhaps for his acrobatics as Puck.

When I saw Dowling’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at CST in 2000, I was delighted by the excellent ensemble and the fact that the staging never lost sight of the connection between the play’s two worlds or its meaning. This time, I’m not so sure. The outlandish stuff seems to get in the way.