Tuesday, December 18, 2018

"Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

Sam Kebede as Puck, left, watches Melisa Soledad Pereyra's Hermia held back by Tyrone Phillips' Lysdander in her brawl with Cristina Panfilio's Helena in Chicago Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." 

     The Chicago Sun-Times has had small roles in a number of big productions, such as movies and TV shows. From that cameo headline in The Fugitive to an entire TV series, Early Edition, a late 1990s bauble built around tomorrow's newspaper magically delivered today.
     Not to forget plays. Forgive me for starting my remarks about Chicago Shakespeare's Theater's consistently excellent A Midsummer Night's Dream by focusing on a trifle: my inky mothership's brief appearance in this colorful and creative, funny and frolicking production that opened at Navy Pier Friday. Nothing big: for a minute or two the paper is ruffled by Snug the Joiner,  playing "Lion" in the sweetly ragtag amateur band's Pyramus and Thisby play-within-a-play. "Slow of study," thanks no doubt to the Old Style he keeps swilling, he sits back and checks the paper, the way any regular Chicago Joe would.  
    Not that this was the play's highlight. Far from it. I could easily point to Sam Kebede's radiant, athletic, sexy Puck, or Joe Dowling's generally joyous and frolicsome direction. But for me, the zenith has to be Cristina Panfilio's marvelous line reading as Helena, part of the ill-starred love quartet at the heart of the comedy. I can't remember hearing Shakespearean verse tossed off so easily, so naturally and conversationally. Her back-and-forth verbal duel—clad in their underwear yet—with Melisa Soledad Pereyra's Hermia was as raucous and enjoyable a piece of theater as I've seen in a while. Shakespeare, done right, should always be fresh. 
     I wasn't reviewing the play and hadn't planned on writing anything. So I'm not going to give full credit where due, nor react to Kris Vire's review in the Sun-Times, which gave the show the backhand as busy and confusing. My wife reviewed the review, with a blunt, Anglo-Saxon barnyard term, and I didn't argue with her. This was only the most recent of regular putdowns that this particular play has been receiving for centuries. Samuel Pepys, seeing a production in 1662, noted in his diary he had just witnessed "the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.
     Pepys was wrong.  Shakespearean scholar Harold Bloom all but calls it the Bard's best work. "Nothing by Shakespeare before A Midsummer Night's Dream is its equal and in some respects nothing by him afterward surpasses it. It is his first undoubted masterwork, without flaw."
     That might be a bit over the top—the play-within-a-play put on by the endearing band of rustics goes on too long, but then, again, it's probably supposed to. And if elements are insipid and ridiculous, are we not now living in insipid and ridiculous times? Perhaps our era's defining characteristic. So maybe reality has caught up with all this magic forest silliness. I didn't have the trouble following the play, and thought Puck radiated charm and personality. Not only was this particular comedy a whole lot of fun, but it redeemed the realm of Shakespearean comedies for me. 
     I've always been a passionate fan of the tragedies: give me King Lear, Hamlet, Richard III, the bloodier the better. But this production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is so beguiling, so smooth and musical, it made me for the first time re-evaluate that preference. With real-life tragedy unfolding all around us in the news, a good laugh in a magical forest is almost mandatory, and this play provides it. This is the comedy where Bottom—here granted the innocence the character deserves—famously transforms into an ass, a process that the entire American body politic has been undergoing for the past three years. The good news is that — spoiler alert — Bottom returns to being fully human by the end. We should all be so lucky. 

     "A Midsummer Night's Dream" runs at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through Jan. 27.



  1. My favorite Midsummer's Night Dream performance enjoyed several years ago started with Puck on stage spray painting "FUCK" on a wall and then filling in the "F" to make "PUCK." Can't say anything about the quality of the acting after all this time, but the play certainly grabbed the audience's attention from the very start.


  2. My most recent "Dream" was at the Stratford, Ontario Theater Festival a few years back. Oberon was, for some unaccountable reason, head of a bicycle gang. Loud, thumping rock music and black leather outfits. Thought it was going to be awful, but the gifted actors overcame the directorial "concept," and it was a most entertaining evening in the theater.

    It's a magical play. As as long as the poetry is allowed to shine through the audience will not, like proud Titania, be "ill met by moonlight."


  3. Since the Nineties, Cleveland Shakespeare Festival has given multiple performances of two plays every summer, in various outdoor venues around town. The first one I ever attended was "Henry V"...almost twenty years ago.

    I expected to see a lot of heavy-duty medieval armor, but what the audience got instead were two warring motorcycle gangs, in boots, leathers, chains, scarves, and bandannas. Blue "colors" for one side, and red for the other. Better still, the whole shebang was staged in the courtyard of a castle-like building on a college campus, with turrets and stone walls and balconies. I didn't care what the rest of the crowd thought of the outfits and the locations...I LOVED it!

    My wife and have seen dozens of CSF performances since, encompassing nearly all of Shakespeare's works. Even saw the now-rare "Merchant of Venice" last year, for the first time in my life. But that very first show (in June of 1999) still tops my list of favorites. The troupe's combat choreographers have always been top-notch, and pass their skills on. Those biker-actors fought...and died...well.

  4. When I lived in Berea, there was something called "The Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival" in Cleveland that we just loved.

    1. They still perform downtown, at the theaters in Playhouse Square. Only they do more than just Shakespeare now, so they were renamed the Great Lakes Theater Festival. When I see the letters GLTF, I'm reminded of another outfit in Chicago that was known as the Gay Liberation Task Force. Old habits die hard.

      The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival is free summer theater that relies on fund-raising and donations and passing the basket after the show. The GLTF is definitely not free, and ticket prices have gone way up in recent years, but compared to other cities, they're still a bargain.

  5. At least, they saved money on the costumes.


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