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Midsummer Night's Dream (2 versions)

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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, Boxer Rebellion Ensemble, at Chopin Theatre, and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, First Folio Shakespeare Festival, at the Peabody Estate at Mayslake. Every good staging of Shakespeare's quintessential summer show must contrast widely disparate creatures--classical heroes, Athenian lovers, "rude mechanicals," feuding fairies. The Boxer Rebellion fails at this task but at least supplies a raw gusto that eludes First Folio. The Boxer Rebellion's funkadelic version is set in the 1960s and democratically treats all Athenians alike. The lovers are flower children rebelling against their rigid elders as they create a temporary commune in the woods. The fairies are merry pranksters, their magic suggesting potent mushrooms, while Theseus and Hippolyta impersonate beaming grown-ups in a family sitcom.

Though weak on poetry and deficient in lyricism, Danielle Mari's exuberant staging amply conveys "the fierce vexation of a dream." Jim Spencer's Bottom is bellowing and bombastic, Jennifer Willison's Helen is quicksilver and magnetic, and Matt Brown's demure lion frolics overtime. Craig Choma's riotous set recalls a Peter Max poster. If much of the play seems dragged down to the level of the "Pyramus and Thisbe" spoof--well, the 60s weren't subtle. This Dream is truer to its time than its young actors can know.

First Folio Shakespeare Festival offers a more solid and articulate Dream, as musical in the delivery as in its songs (by Michael Keefe). Set in the Roaring Twenties, Alison C. Vesely's staging transforms the lovers into veddy English flappers and twits, silly to start with, then perplexed by their fairy-fueled "dream." Vesely's cast miss no chance to mine the Bard's lines for lyricism and laughter. A rich mix of wit and warmth, Paula Scrofano's Titania and Jim Johnson's Oberon take palpable pleasure in the poetry. Clad in Michele Siler's Erte-tinged costumes, the mixed-up lovers seem doubly out of place in their Forest of Athens (too abstract, however, in Christopher Jensen's cartoony set).

Where the Boxer Rebellion enthusiastically confuses the play's hierarchies, First Folio glories in them--especially when worlds improbably collide and Titania woos Robert Scogin's bumptious Bottom. Inspired by his craftily crude comedy, these "hempen homespuns" are doubly endearing: eternal amateurs, they set off Shakespeare's effortless stagecraft, their clumsy parody of Romeo and Juliet testifying to the hard work even lousy make-believe requires. Delightfully sure of their power to persuade, they issue a disclaimer: their lion isn't real. Shakespeare not only casts more spells than Puck--he undoes them with aplomb. --Lawrence Bommer

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