|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.