By Patrick O’Brien
There may not be too much greenery outside this time of year, but one wouldn’t know it inside Chicago Shakes, where their production of the Bard’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has turned the Courtyard Theater into a dazzling, outsized hothouse.
Giant flowers, glistening dew drops, haziness, no straight angles; this fairyland is the perfect setting for the Bard’s romp through the Athenian wood where anything goes.
It’s one of Shakespeare’s most magical, funny and sexy plays, and director Joe Dowling gives it an extra injection of hoo-doo, comedy and booty-shaking. But how much extra was necessary?
In some ways, the extra is welcome. Besides the visuals, the big draw here is TV star T.R. Knight as the overinflated Bottom. He mines every opportunity for funny business — in and out of the donkey’s head — and his acting troupe’s performance of the lovers’ tragedy Pyramus & Thisbe brings down the house with overwrought bathos and underprepared stagecraft, as well any Midsummer should.
And when one puts Broadway actress Alexandra Silber to work as the fairy queen Titania, belting out R&B slow jams drawn from the original verse, it raises the temperature inside this hothouse somewhat. (Keith Thomas’s bom-chicka-wah-wah score helps.)
Dowling is also wise to give the play’s magical elements some gravity. In league with choreographer Joe Chvala, his fairies’ manipulation of the ether we mortals take for granted is properly grounded.
In other places, though, the funny and sexy business is less elevating and feels just that: business. This mostly relates to the central quartet of lovers who hightail it to the woods to escape death, nunneries and broken hearts; and, thanks to interloping fairies, they fall in love with everyone except their intended. Their performances are funny, if functionarily so. They’re collectively riddled with what can only be called stock contemporary Shakespeare comedy gestures — throwing out the hands, big eye rolls, onomatopoeic exclamations like “Wha…” complete with mouth agape.
One wishes the comedy inherent in four people running around the woods in their skivvies, slipping further toward the ends of their ropes, would come from somewhere further deep down. (Thankfully, Sam Kebede’s impish Puck is there to sprinkle some magic over that particular plot strand. He’s a delight from his party-crashing entrance.)
These quibbling themes are no more yielding than a dream, however. Midsummer is a reliable play — a reliable Shakespeare primer for the uninitiated, even — and Dowling serves up a Christmastime spectacle for anyone who wants to ditch the red and green for a little fuchsia and electric blue, or the solemnity for the silliness. Hie thee to the wood, then, if this switch-up is what the season ordered.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” February 3, 2019, at the Courtyard Theater, 800 E Grand Avenue on Navy Pier. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Liz Lauren.