You can’t accuse Joe Dowling’s staging of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy of not trying to keep your attention. But its tactics for doing so can feel like they’re trying to distract you from the play itself.
Dowling, the Irish-born director whose illustrious career includes nearly two decades as artistic director of Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre, is on his tenth staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with the production that opened Friday night at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. His fifth outing with the play, as it happens, was on this same stage 19 years ago, in CST’s first season on Navy Pier.
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
When: Through January 27, 2019
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand
Tickets: $48 – $88
Run time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission
Clearly Dowling feels an affinity for this magic-infused romance, often thought of as Shakespeare’s family-friendliest comedy. But many of the ideas the director layers on top of this script — and they are numerous — appear to be the same touches he’s been returning to for more than 25 years.
Even on the page, “Midsummer” is already a busy endeavor. The comedy has three distinct sets of characters. There are the woodland fairies, whose king and queen, Oberon and Titania, are feuding over custody of a changeling boy; Oberon sends his servant, the spritely Puck, on an errand for a magic herb to tilt the playing field.
Four young Athenians who find themselves in the woods, Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius and Helena, get caught in the crossfire of the fairy games and go through multiple romantic reconfigurations before being sorted into two happy couples.
And another group of mortals, the “rude mechanicals” — an amateur theater troupe rehearsing a play in the woods — serve as comic relief to the comedy, while one of their number, the overeager Bottom, becomes a pawn in Puck’s manipulation of Titania.
That’s a lot of plot to manage. Many stagings of “Midsummer” trim the script for maximum efficiency. Not so Dowling’s; his comes perhaps the closest I’ve seen to performing the full text. And that’s not counting the musical numbers.
Rather than trusting his audience to keep up with unadulterated Shakespeare, Dowling interpolates bits of modernized spectacle like he’s programming timeout entertainment at a Bulls game. Sections of text are sung to pre-recorded tracks in the style of doo-wop, blues or hip-hop. Action is punctuated with clanging cartoon sound effects straight out of the “morning zoo” radio format. Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design is marked by enormous, Day-Glo flora that are apparently meant to evoke Hieronymus Bosch but instead recall the Rainforest Cafe. The fairies get a full-on dance-battle interlude for some reason.
All of this would be fine — maybe — if these elements were integrated into a cohesive concept. Instead, it feels as if Dowling has been collecting discrete ideas over the years and smushing them all together with each new staging. (I haven’t seen all of his “Midsummers,” of course — I was still in junior high when he mounted his first, at New York’s Acting Company in the early ’90s.)
But reviews and other records suggest the accumulation: In NYC in 1992, the acting troupe planning the play-within-the-play consulted USA Today for a weather forecast; here, they check a copy of the Sun-Times. The mediocre musical pastiches have come from composer Keith Thomas at least since the January 2000 CST staging; the current costumes, designed by Fabio Toblini, appear to be replicas of Toblini’s work at the Guthrie in 2015, Dowling’s final season there.
And with so much attention given to the aesthetics, what’s been overlooked here are the performances. In particular, Edward O’Blenis as Oberon and Sam Kebede as Puck fall flat, neither demonstrating the commanding presence necessary for their characters. They’re not alone, certainly; too much of this production remains as surface-level as the mirrored disco ball that inevitably descends from the rafters near the denouement.
But there are bright spots: T.R. Knight, the actor best known for his years on TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” works hard but also well as the beset-upon Bottom. And the four-way brawl among the love-potion-addled young lovers, played by Melisa Soledad Pereyra, Tyrone Phillips, Eric Schabla and Cristina Panfilio, is as funny and as real as I’ve ever seen it played. It’s also, not for nothing, the scene that Dowling leaves the most unadorned.
Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.