Regional Reviews: Chicago
A Midsummer Night's Dream
He couldn't have chosen a better play with which to do it. Midsummer is crazy, chaotic, a bit dark, very silly at times, supernatural, and a ton of fun. No matter how many times and in how many forms I've seen it–and I've directed a production I set on Navy Pier–its combination of fairy mischief, young love, and screwball comedy, unparalleled in the Bard's entire oeuvre, never ceases to be thoroughly engaging and entertaining. Staged outside in a meadow surrounded by trees, Oak Park's version makes us feel as if we've been dropped in the middle of the forest along with the lovers and fairies. And the feeling is joyous.
Anderson's decision to cast two same-sex couples as the lovers is brilliant, as it simultaneously calls attention to the contemporary problems faced by the community and, in a more subtle way, utterly subverts them. At the start, Egeus (also transgendered and played as a woman by Wil Wilhelm) demands that his daughter Hermia (Rachel Jones) marry the man she has chosen, Demetrius (Julio Cesar Gutierrez), instead of the woman she loves, Lysander (Taylor Dalton). Otherwise, she must face the punishment Athenian law provides for such disobedience: her choice between death and a lifetime in a convent. Her mother's refusal to accept Hermia's choice becomes emblematic of the kind of antipathy and discrimination many queer people face every day. There is no dialogue that shows gay-bashing, of course, but we see what we see: a mother who would rather her daughter be put to death than to see her marry another woman, no matter how worthy that woman is. Hermia and Lysander choose to put themselves outside of Athenian law by going into the woods beyond the city–hiding who they are as LGBT+ people had to do for centuries.
Meanwhile, Helena (Lucas Prizant, the only one of the four lovers to consciously and obviously adopt any characteristics of the original gender of the person he is playing) is miserable because the man he loves (Demetrius, of course) does not love him back, preferring the more traditional match with Hermia favored by her mother. He scorns Helena's clear feelings (and, yes, this makes some of his lines come out homophobic), constantly berating him and at one point physically pushing him away.
One result of all of this coupling and non-coupling is that the nature of gender itself seemingly becomes unimportant. We see same-sex pairings but hear names and references to the het couples that exist in the script, and eventually everything blends together to the point where nothing about any of it matters.
As it should be.
The fairies, led by King Oberon (Aaron Latterell, who also plays Duke Theseus of Athens) and Queen Titania (Sonia Goldberg, who is also Theseus's fiancée Hippolyta), live in the woods where the lovers take refuge (followed closely by Demetrius, wanting to stop them, and Helena, because of course he follows his would-be love). In both mortal and fairy personas, Latterell–blessed with a wonderful kingly voice–and Goldberg are perfect. And the fact that the fairy royals are fighting among themselves provides a perfect opportunity for Titania to have some nasty fun, assisted by her aide-de-camp, the impish Puck (Wilhelm, is a role they were born to play). A few drops of instant-love juice later, Lysander and Demetrius are both unwaveringly smitten with Helena, who believes them to be making fun of him, and the fun is on.
Also in the woods is a group of workmen ("mechanicals") getting ready to put on a play (also about lovers, but more tragic even though their incompetence brings much mirth into it) to honor the Duke on his wedding day. Chief among these is Bottom (played by an absolutely brilliant Molly Brennan), who is the kind of guy who knows nothing but thinks himself capable of just about anything. He is assigned the main role, Pyramus, but seems to think he should play everything himself. Thisbe, his doomed love interest, is played by Flute (Haven Janeil Crawley), who at first does not wish to play the girl but eventually delivers arguably the most lovely speech of the play.
As they rehearse, Puck sees the boorish Bottom and chastises him by giving him an ass's head, and his friends all run from the image of him transformed into a monster. When Puck tells Titania of this fun, she decides to bring an end to her argument with Oberon by playing a joke on him. Another drop of instant-love juice, and the king of fairies falls hopelessly in love with an ass (Bottom).
All of this other-worldly mayhem takes the spotlight away from the lovers, which is pretty much the point. Thanks to the choices Anderson has made, the whole notion of homophobia vanishes into the night as order is restored and the dreamlike memories of Puck's now-reversed mischief are gone–though Demetrius does now accept Helena as his lover.
The pure joy exuded by this company makes their Midsummer a must-see. There are beautiful (and often funny) dance breaks (choreographed by Christian Bufford, original music by Daniel Ocanto). There is also a wonderful set by Evan Frank that is able to visually distinguish the forest from the court. This production is almost as magical as its fairy characters.
A couple of (minor) concerns: the stage sits pretty low and characters are often on the "ground," which causes sightline problems. Try to sit as close to the front center as you can. This will also aid you in the first act when the evening cicadas pretty much drown out the dialogue along the sides. I was on the side, and obviously I still enjoyed the play, but I would have enjoyed it more without these problems.
A Midsummer Night's Dream runs through August 29, 2023, at Oak Park Festival Theatre, 167 Forest Ave, Oak Park IL. For tickets and information, please visit oakparkfestival.com.