Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured: Faith Servant and Christopher Sheard. Photo by Liz Lauren.
By Bec Willett
Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM has its very own fairy dust-covered jar in the time capsule of my iconic teenage theatre experiences. I strongly suspect that a similar jar is being dusted and stored in the memory of each middle-schooler with whom I had the privilege to attend Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production on Tuesday morning. As an adult theatre practitioner, it’s thrilling to think that each of these young people’s idea of what theatre and Shakespeare can be has forever been altered for the positive.
At 75 minutes, this condensed “Short Shakespeare!” version is aimed at educational and family audiences, intent on giving young people a taste of what the bard can be. With a teen audience whose response often thwarts polite disguise, it’s impressive how squarely this production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM hits this target. It begins even before the show, when actor Christopher Sheard, in costume but not yet in character, addresses us, endearing himself to us as a person and reminding us that while rudeness is discouraged, enjoyment is not. When he then appears on stage moments later, his Lysander is not only dynamic and hilarious, but becomes a touchstone of comfortability in the midst of the unfamiliar language. Joined by Faith Stewart as a vivacious Hermia, Ally Carey as a hot-mess Helena, and Andrew Saenz as Demetrius, they round out the quartet of muddled lovers who under Jess Mcleod’s precise, airy direction offer a perspective for nearly every teen. While in the first half this desire for clarity and connection sometimes leads to the clunky delivery of verse, by the time we are halfway in, the groove is set, and after all, it is only 10 in the morning!
A foil to the romantic, these MIDSUMMER mechanicals are among the funniest performances I’ve seen. Each mechanical shines – Adam Wesley Brown’s goofy Bottom, Lane Anthony Flores timid Flute, Richard Costes adorable Snout, Drew Shirley’s stoic Starveling, Jarret King’s marshaling Quince, completed by Hannah Starr’s Snug who is just about the cutest lion you’ve ever seen. They present precise, sophisticated ensemble work disguised in an ease that will convince anyone – even the hardened teen – that the bard is funny and engaging.
While the setting of a forest somewhere is a little generic, each design component is stunning yet subtle. Greg Hofmann’s lighting design moves us in and out of worlds with patinas of color that avoid the gaudy, creating a true sense of fairy magic, Izumi Inaba’s smart use of color and texture in Helena’s cool toned palette versus Hermia’s warm one drive home the sides at war, and Mikhail Fiksel use of sound to indicate characters entrances are not only beautiful but once again serve to support clarity for the youthful audience.
Surrounded by the beauty of this production and the joy of the audience, my inner teen and her fairy dust jar were elated. Yet, after shaking the jar ever so slightly I realize with adult eyes that the essence of this story is, well, pretty darn creepy. The drugging of people, especially women to fulfill the desires of Oberon. That it’s a joke to dress up a man in women’s clothing to play Thisbe. Seriously, how could I have not seen this before? Maybe it’s exacerbated by condensation or just a product of time and experience but whichever way, it’s difficult to deny that the premise of this story reeks of rape culture. Despite director/adapter Jess McCleod’s efforts to subdue some of the issues through nuance and diverse casting, the underlying essence of the story is unavoidable: that it’s ok to drug and manipulate people to get what you want. Is this really what we want our teens to thrive on?
I’d forgotten what it was like to watch theatre with such a wholly active audience – every quip, every fight, and especially every kiss causing giddy gasps and sighs. There’s no doubt that Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s SHORT SHAKESPEARE! A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM is a stunningly performed and designed production whose artists deserve every such accolade. Yet I hope that for future Short Shakespeare!’s that the effort put towards the fairy dust of youthful engagement is also put towards examining and commenting on the ideas at the heart of the story.
SHORT SHAKESPEARE! A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM runs through March 10th. For more information visit www.chicagoshakes.com.