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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 403-405
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A Midsummer Night's Dream
A Midsummer Night's Dream. By William Shakespeare. Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Chicago, Illinois. 5 March 2000.
In 1986, Barbara Gaines founded the Shakespeare Repertory in Chicago, and over the course of several years developed a reputation for sound productions. In October of 1999, the company changed its name to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater as it moved into a new home on Navy Pier, a $23-million complex housing a 525-seat courtyard theatre modeled on the Royal Shakespeare Company's Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and a smaller, 200-seat studio theatre. Both are excellent spaces, superbly designed. That Navy Pier is an amusement-park site may have some effect on the productions there, encouraging a trend to popularization.
Joe Dowling, a native of Ireland and former director of Dublin's famed Abbey Theatre, has been the artistic director of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis since 1995. He has made a specialty of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and although I have not seen them all, I did see the touring production mounted by The Acting Company from Juilliard in Dayton in 1991 and his Stratford Festival production of 1993. In January of 2000 he opened his most recent production of Shakespeare's comedy for a sold-out run in the inaugural season of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST). This production emphasized the magical elements of the play.
Despite the popularity of the CST Dream, critical response was mixed. One Chicago reviewer doubted "that there has ever been a happier, more romantic or more hilarious staging" of the play, while another damned it as a "big, bloated bore." Both responses are justified. For all its strengths, the production's faults seemed to be the result of an unlimited budget. It emphasized the campiness of the musical scenes, and perhaps overemphasized the visual aspects, especially the ingenuity of the set.
Darling's Dreams are always sexy. The press release said the production was inspired by the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, but if so, Bosch was inspired by one of Georgia O'Keefe's vagina-like flowers. For the forest scenes, a "fantastical motorized 18-foot-tall by 24-foot-wide electric blue flower" rolled out and disgorged the first fairy and Puck to rock and roll music. The production opened with an apparently naked Puck romping through the audience until he was summoned onstage and dressed. Oberon was feathered and shelled, like a turtle, with a big codpiece. The four young lovers were reduced to their underwear (their outer garments flew off them magically) within minutes of [End Page 403] [Begin Page 405] entering the woods, as is typical of a Dowling Dream. After Bottom's transformation, Titania entered from the mouth of the flower in response to his singing "Some Enchanted Evening" and then led him offstage (but not silently) while unbuckling his belt, to end the first act. The play resumed with the sound of offstage orgasms. Then Bottom and Titania danced onstage to rock and roll, Titania leaving her umbrella in the flower's orifice. She then sang to Bottom as if she were a nightclub singer. When Titania was disenchanted, fairies carried her on in a seated position, with her legs spread wide open, to restore her to Oberon.
A Lysander of a production some years ago once told me that when Dream isn't working, you fall back on the Rude Mechanicals. This production needlessly resorted to that "Let's make Shakespeare fun" approach, the Mechanicals camping and padding their roles. They had been part of the crowd welcoming Theseus and his Amazon bride, but entered for their first scene to 1950s pop music to begin their rehearsal in the den of a "typical" Chicago residence, complete with plaid couch. They were not Shakespeare's working-class men but midcentury Chicagoans. Bottom was not a weaver but the dandy of the civic theatre, wearing his sport coat as a cape over his shoulders and an ascot; he even affected a "Shakespearean" accent. Richard Iglewski...