Regional Reviews: Chicago
A Midsummer Night's Dream
For the first two weekends of the run, the company sets up shop in Lincoln Park, just between the south end of the zoo and the cultural center. Audience members spread blankets and set up lawn chairs in cordoned-off areas flanking a center aisle and facing the minimalist set (scenic design by Nina Castillo D'Angier) comprising two canvas arches featuring painted pillars, a wooden chaise longue, an three low stools.
The press release for the show notes that performances take place in natural light and without amplification. What might read like a caution, though, turns out to be a promise, beautifully fulfilled. The action kicks off with Theseus and Hippolyta chasing each other, swords drawn, into the audience's line of sight. The mix of verbal and physical sparring immediately sets the high energy, larger-than-life tone.
Their sexual-and-then-some tension isn't so much cut off by the arrival of Egeus as it is sent careening off in new, laugh-out-loud funny directions. Barry Irving plays the affronted father big and broadly enough that if there were cheap seats, no one occupying them would feel like they had missed a thing. In a handful of lines, he lets the audience know that the scale of things makes it more than okay to relax into the summer-night vibe. This, true to the company's mission, is accessible Shakespeare.
The members of the cast we meet along with Irving are equally impressive in how quickly and fully they establish their characters. Meredith Ernst and Joshua Pennington breathe rare life in Hippolyta and Theseus, radiating irritation at the interruption of their rough and ready brand of foreplay–an energy they also bring to Titania and Oberon. And although the best one can too often hope for with Hermia and Lysander is performances that let the audience reliably distinguish them from Helena and Demetrius, Alice Wu and Richard Eisloeffel exceed expectations right from the start.
There's more of the warrior than the damsel in Wu's delivery and body language and, despite the characters' lack of scripted interaction, Ernst subtly conveys the fact that Hippolyta both notices and approves, which is a testament to Wolf's tight direction and the fact that the cast clearly thrives under it.
Similarly, Eisloeffel avoids both whiny entitlement and the too-common macho approach that depicts Lysander as being more interested in competing with the other men in the play than he is in actually being with Hermia. Even though a lot of the romantic back and forth is trimmed out, these two actors make for a believable couple the audience is inclined to invest in.
As Helena, Koshie Mills could not be more delightfully different from Hermia. Whereas, Wu is all concentrated fury and determination (a performance that pays off beautifully in the scenes in which she loses it because she believes Helena is making fun of her height), Mills is constantly overflowing with words and movement and emotion.
Chris Smith is credited as the production's fight director and Maureen Yasko as the intimacy director. I don't know if one or both deserve credit for allowing the full of expression of Mills' performance to emerge as she fends off both Lysander and Demetrius (played by Manny Sevilla, who does a lot with not a lot of material in this streamlined version), Three Stooges style, but the result is the glorious highlight of a show throughout which movement and physical interaction are extremely well handled.
Ebby Offord plays Puck as more than the usual petulant agent of chaos by mixing in an interesting and effective touch of weariness. Among the rude mechanicals, Irving does great double duty as the harried Peter Quince. He skillfully notches his own performance down to let Jack Morsovillo really barrel through their scenes as Nick Bottom. Elizabeth McAnulty Quilter is a quietly hilarious scene stealer as a drunken Tom Snout/Wall.
The cast's rapport and facility with the text are very well supported by Lily Walls' costume design as well as the work of Justin Cavazos, the composer and music director. Although it might seem odd to juxtapose those two elements, in an environment where there is simply no way to see every moment or hear every syllable of dialogue, these two provide the visual and aural bedrock.
Walls outfits the upper-crust men in cream-colored togas with a dash of color that links each to their (ultimate) better half. Hermia and Helena are in relatively unstructured (but distinctive style) garments in rich, silky jewel tones. To transform Hippolyta into Titania, Walls turns the color way up for Ernst, draping her in bright green lace, and she brings Oberon to life by wrapping Pennington in a wide claret-colored sash trailing bronze wings that he uses to hilarious effect when the king of the fairies finds it convenient to turn invisible.
Cavazos has a number of solid musicians to call on within the cast. Ebby Offord, Jack Morsovillo, and Travis Shanahan (Francis Flute/Moth) all handle relatively simple yet engaging melody and rhythm on guitars to set the mood for the scenes with the fairies and the mechanicals, and Kat Zheng's (Robin Starveling/Peaseblossom) violin soars beautifully above it all along with Hannah Mary Simpson's (Snug/Cobweb) silvery vocals. The music is, by turns, driving and dreamlike and plays an important role in weaving the the production's spell.
A Midsummer Night's Dream runs through August 21, 2022, at five Chicago Parks District venues: Lincoln Park, 2045 N. Lincoln Park West (July 15-17 and 29-31); Gross Park, 2708 W. Lawrence (July 22-24); Lake Meadows Park, 3117 S. Rhodes (August 5-7); Chicago Women's Park and Gardens, 1801 S. Indiana (August 12-14); Touhy Park, 7348 N. Paulina (August 19-21). Visit www.midsommerflight.com for directions and parking information for each venue.