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Chicago by John Olson

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

Also see John's reviews of South Pacific and Show Boat

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Elizabeth Ledo
I remember being taught in high school English classes not to expect Shakespeare's comedies to necessarily be funny, as his comedies could be defined as plays in which nobody dies. Gary Griffin's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, however, is very funny. While true to Shakespeare in every way—including the casting of some Chicago Shakespeare's finest regular actors—he's directed here in a comedic style that brings out belly laughs without losing the poetic beauty of the language. Some of it is physical—actors do double-takes in contemporary manner of comedic acting, for example—but a lot is verbal as well. The lines land as well here as in any Neil Simon comedy. I had to check to see if Hermia's insult of the tall and slender Helena as a "painted maypole" was in the original, and indeed it is.

Griffin's smart casting choices include the hiring of Broadway veteran Ron Orbach (Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor) as the grandiose weaver turned actor Nick Bottom. From the very first, he establishes Bottom as a delusional, self-important amateur actor—ready to take on any and every role in the play-within-the play performed by the "rude mechanicals"—and setting up his later inability to realize the mischievous fairy Puck has given him the head of a donkey. Equally funny, though with less stage time, is Tim Kazurinsky as Peter Quince, the director of the play within. Kazurinsky's persona, which many will remember from his years on "Saturday Night Live" in the 1980s, is put to good use here. His Quince is hyper-energetic and nervous, struggling to maintain control of his hapless cast. (This is the first of three announced roles Kazurinsky will play on Chicago stages this year, the others being Wilbur in Hairspray at Drury Lane this spring and Felix in The Odd Couple at Northlight Theatre in the fall.)

On the more traditionally Shakespearean side of the casting ledger is Timothy Edward Kane in a dual role as Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Oberon, the fairy king. A veteran of Chicago Shakes and much other classical theatre, he has a commanding presence in both roles: authoritative in 1920s business attire as the Duke; shirtless and muscular as Oberon. In an unusual but effective casting choice, Griffin has a woman as Puck—Elizabeth Ledo, whose experience doing both Shakespeare and Simon is put to good use. For this role, she sports a shaved head, though her appearance is not androgynous, and she bounds around the stage with great agility, projecting a powerful Puck. As Theseus' bride Hippolyta and the fairy queen Titania, Tracy Michelle Arnold, who has done much work in the classics at Wisconsin's American Players Theatre, is stunningly beautiful and strong. The two pairs of young lovers are comically and romantically played by the attractive and capable quartet of Matt Schwader (Demetrius), Christina Nieves (Hermia), Andy Truschinski (Lysander) and Laura Huizenga (Helena). Hermia's father, Egeus, who would have Hermia executed for going against her betrothal to Demetrius, is played with due Shakespearean gravitas by Kurt Ehrmann. The supporting rude mechanicals are played with expert comic abilities by Levenix Riddle, Michael Aaron Lindner, Richard Manera and Rod Thomas. They double as the forest fairies as well, in wild headdresses designed by costumer Mara Blumenfeld.

Griffin has added a framing device that refers to Sigmund Freud and his book "The Interpretation of Dreams." Both Freud and the book cover are shown on the upstage screen in the proscenium behind CST's Courtyard Theater thrust stage as Freud appears on stage, only to undress and reveal himself to be Puck. A program note from Griffin suggests a mirror-image parallel between Freud's theories and Shakespeare's theme. Freud said that dreams—unreal, imagined events—give insight into our real lives, while the fairy king Oberon believes the events of the midsummer night—which may really have happened to the young lovers—should be believed to be a dream.

The settings are established mostly through projections designed by Mike Tutaj. Theseus's palace is projected as an elegant turn-of-the-century mansion, but the forest scenes are symbolic, mood setting visuals. Magically comical sound effects are added by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, who provide original music as well as the sound design. Blumenfeld's costumes for the humans suggest the 1920s, a time by which Freud's work was well known, but the period is not of great significance in Griffin's take on the piece. Most important is the production's success in making the case for Shakespeare as a truly funny writer, who in another era might have been at home on Neil Simon's 23rd floor.

A Midsummer Night's Dream will be performed at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through April 8, 2012. Ticket information is online at www.chicagoshakes.com/dream or by phone at 312-595-5600.


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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