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A Midsummer Night's Dream; The Comedy of Errors

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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM

Oak Park Festival Theatre

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS

Equity Library Theatre Chicago

at Chicago Dramatists Workshop

If love is blind to begin with, and then you mix up lovers over a long midsummer night, a special kind of bewildering darkness is created. That double delusion, disarray within a daze, fuels the delightful deceptions of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music as well as the shenanigans of its unrivaled predecessor, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The wisdom of Oak Park Festival Theatre's excellent production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (their third in 20 years) is to treat the supernatural turf battle between Titania and Oberon--but little else--seriously indeed. Here the fairies' civil war touches everyone, in mistaken identities triggered by misapplied magic, but also in the benediction the placated fairies offer the closing marriages. Johnny Lee Davenport and Angela Iannone are magnificent and sensual consorts, providing a calm, earnest context for the frivolous events unleashed by their squabble. And in a brilliant touch, Colleen Kane plays Puck with sinister mischievousness, as if he were out of rhythm with everyone else. That choice is inspired: lacking a villain, this comedy has little other source of tension. Mingling Caliban's churlishness and Ariel's opportunism, Kane is a petulant watchdog, literally barking to celebrate Puck's dangerous capacity to confuse.

Except for the classical lovers Hippolyta and Theseus--Christine Rea and Joseph Wycoff are gracious and dignified--everyone else in Tom Mula and Dale Calandra's deft staging is swept up in a riot of rambunctious fun, the result of cunning casting and clever design. The inexhaustible lovers are played with scatterbrained conviction and indomitable naivete by Kevin Theis, Matt Pestorius, Krista Lally, and Reader critic Stephanie Shaw.

Another simple reason for this production's success is the setting. Performing this play indoors is like caging a bird: it may breathe, but it can't soar. But when the sky is literally the limit, Shakespeare's nature-soaked, flower-crazed dialogue blooms. In this play the Bard unleashes a rhapsodic inventory of woodland wonders--wild thyme, oxlips, nodding violets, luscious woodbine, sweet musk-roses, eglantine, purple grapes, green figs, mulberries, hawthorne brakes, and the most potent, a little western flower called love-in-idleness.

Austin Gardens in Oak Park, where this production is set, is a cultivated woods where sunsets yield easily to lightning bugs. The fairies deftly hide in every chink and cranny of Chris Phillips's sprawling set--it's clearly their turf, and they know its every branch, bush, and flower. Phillips, who also designed the lighting, knows how mysterious trees look when lit from beneath, their surreal green a complement to the tangled events they shade. The fireflies and moonlight vie with the man-made light, Frances Maggio's costumes are gorgeously textured and well contrasted, and Larry Schanker's spell-casting, dreamlike music ranges from contagious calypso to the soaring apotheosis accompanying Bottom's transformation.

But however screwball the lovers' complications and rhapsodic the fairies' conjurings, the combustible power of this show resides mainly in the high jinks of the low characters. The hilarity is relentless in the depiction of the "rude mechanicals," who invent vaudeville to perform their "lamentable" version of "Pyramus and Thisbe." From slow-motion pie throwing to rubber-faced mugging, the burlesque is shameless and gut-bustingly funny. Comic genius Mula as the phony-elocutionary Bottom profits from sidesplitting scene stealing, and he's wonderfully supported by Kevin Farrell as the bumptiously balletic Flute and Page Hearn as the pucker-pussed Starveling. When Mula's "Pyramoose" dies, his throes include everything from slapstick stab wounds to a soulful quote from Madama Butterfly.

Mula doesn't just celebrate Bottom's stagestruck hamminess or literal asininity. Like Paul Mullins in Folio Theatre's recent production, his Bottom is truly transformed--his awe at having changed species is almost religious. It helps that Mula's donkey mask is perfectly molded to his face--his eyes speak wonders, allowing us to see the human trapped inside the beast.

Despite the spells in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the people put through their paces are more than pawns of the plot. Not so in The Comedy of Errors, written five years earlier--the Bard slavishly stole it from the Menaechmi, Plautus' formulaic comedy. A sitcom in the shallowest sense, the mechanical Errors relies on the mistaken identities of two sets of identical twins, servants (the Dromios) and masters (the Antipholi), but their mix-ups feel as predictable as a market cycle.

From its first frenetic moment, this Equity Library Theatre Chicago production assumes that the script's archaic jokes and tedious raillery mean it will fail on its own terms. And it's true--this is a cartoon with complications. Like many before him, director Jack Hickey turns to groaner puns ("Dromio, Dromio, wherefore art thou Dromio?"), anachronisms (Road Runner-style chases), Stooges slaps, crotch kicks, fart jokes, freeze-frame tableaux, and caustic comments on the impenetrable text (confesses Dromio II after an obscure line, "I don't know what it means either, folks"). Given the bad vaudeville, it seems unnecessary for one character to point into the distance and exclaim, "Look--there's Shakespeare rolling in his grave!" It must be his favorite exercise.

The shameless mugging and boisterous burlesque would be fun if more of the blocking, line delivery, and reactions were shaped and risky, not improvised and safely tentative. The play's turgid passages require more than broad buffoonery; we have to feel that the actor believes the nonsense. Happily, that is the case with both Dromios--Norm Boucher and Charls Sedgwick Hall--whose characters are as solid as their lines are silly. Also credit Roxanne Fay, who brings dignity to the role of an innocently duped wife, and Scott Lynch-Giddings, whose Antipholus of Ephesus really does seem at the mercy of comic circumstances. But overall there are too many errors, and the title doesn't excuse them.

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