Leafy parks lend themselves to a mirthful ‘Midsummer’

Written By By HEDY WEISS Theater Critic Posted: 07/20/2014, 03:04pm

The weather was perfect. So was the ticket price (free). The crowd was a demographer’s dream, with every age and background seated on the grass or folding chairs. And the play, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — Shakespeare’s fast-paced comedy of mismatched lovers, embattled spouses, a despotic father, magic potions, amateur actors and zany encounters in a sylvan setting just far enough away from the laws of city life to allow for big mischief — seemed custom-made for Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks, which kicked off its third season Friday evening in Navy Pier’s Gateway Park. It was the first of 26 performances to be performed in 18 city parks.

Cast member Tiffany Yvonne Cox charmingly prepped the crowd (about a third of which raised its hands when asked if this was a first encounter with the Bard), and reminded them it might take a few minutes for their ears to adjust to the language. But director-adapter David H. Bell and his high-propulsion actors made that advisory all but unnecessary. The audience was with this winningly played, visually entrancing production from the moment Hermia (the hugely engaging Cox) faced King Theseus (Nathan M. Hosner) and fervently pleaded her case to marry Lysander (Ryan Imhoff), the man of her choice, rather than Demetrius (Ryan Hallahan), the young military man selected by her father (Don Forston). (Demetrius also happens to be the great unrequited love of Hermia’s friend, Helena, played by a winningly self-deprecating Amanda Catania.)

Hermia loses her bid and flees to the forest, where the king and queen of the fairy world — Oberon (the expertly arrogant Hosner) and Titania (a Tina Turner-like Lanise Antoine Shelley) — are engaged in a rip-roaring battle over Titania’s wish to keep a little changeling boy, and where a group of workers hellbent on staging a play have come to rehearse.

Oberon punishes his wife (yes, there is a whole lot of macho behavior going on in this play, and much female rebellion, too) by calling on his fleet helper, Puck (acrobatic Steven Lee Johnson, who brings a sort of bad-boy rock star quality to the role), to administer his version of Love Potion #9. The balm results in Titania falling instantly in lust with the winning ham actor, Bottom (Bernard Balbott in a marvelously exuberant comic turn), who Oberon has transformed into a jackass. It also suddenly makes the previously overlooked Helena the focus of Hermia’s two suitors.

Along with Balbott, the amateur actors (played by Forston, Max Fabian, Michael Finley, Justin Cornwell and Wesley Daniel) earned great applause for their antic efforts as thespians.

Scott Davis’ beautiful set gives us weathered green shutter-style doors for the city, and insect-bitten green umbrellas and raglike vines for the forest, with the trees of the real park a lush frame. Melissa Torchia’s costumes, clearly designed to withstand the show’s intense physicality, mix elegant Edwardian and raw punk. Ethan Deppe’s score and sound design (with crystal-clear amped voices) add to the magic. And in a delightful touch, the cast ultimately opens Magritte-inspired sky-and-clouds umbrellas — a fine reminder that what has just occurred might well be a surreal midsummer night’s dream.

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