Arc Theatre brings Shakespeare to Ridgeville Park. “As You Like It” cast members (from left to right) Sarah Hecht, Jeff Kurysz, and Tyler MeredithPhoto by Amanda de la Guardia

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The summer Shakespeare season is in full swing in Evanston, with two plays currently running, one already closed, and a fourth set to start Aug. 6. With three different theater companies at work, the plays present a variety of approaches to the Bard’s works, and give audiences a chance to savor different takes on familiar classics. For the second time in recent years, two companies produced the same work with both Mudlark and Muse of Fire presenting “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Muse of Fire’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Muse of Fire takes over Ingraham Park, behind the Civic Center, weekend afternoons every summer for its sparsely set productions focusing on character. This year, the only set design consists of two wooden ladders set before the large cottonwood tree in park center. The only props are a pair of croquet mallets that double as swords, and a ball or two.

With material like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and actors as talented as these, audiences do not need anything more.

Always a crowd pleaser, “Dream” presents three intertwined worlds: the royal court, the laborers who produce a play for the royals, and the realm of the fairies. Tying the worlds together is the sublime Bottom the Weaver, played brilliantly by Pavi Proczko. He gives Bottom the right mix of humanity, humor, unshakeable good nature, a touch or two of pomposity, and at all times open-hearted wonder.

Most importantly, he is absolutely hilarious.

Because he ties all three worlds together, Mr. Proczko is the only actor with a single role in the play. Everyone else plays at least two roles, with Kevin Grubb doing triple duty with a role in each world. Muse of Fire often does this, giving multiple roles for single actors, in contrast to the decisions made by Arc Theater to edit the source material to combine roles into one. Each approach has merit.

Here, a clap of a noisemaker rendered by Fairy King Oberon’s Jason Kellerman signals a change in worlds, and at times actors switch costumes right before the audience, shifting from the fairy world to reality or the day-laborer world to the royal court, right before our eyes.

All of the actors are excellent, and the outdoor setting adds occasional wrinkles that allow for improvisation and interaction. At the July 23 performance, a small leaf-filled branch broke off the elm and landed right next to Rejinal Simon’s Demetrius. His startled reaction, completely in character and appropriate to the scene, added a level of human truth and spirit that ordinary indoor theater rarely allows. Mr. Simon is excellent as the love-battered noble, and also as the bumbling Peter Quince.

Likewise, just as the play drew to a close, during Puck’s epilogue, giant drops of rain began to cascade from the sky. Looking up, Benjamin Ponce sped up his delivery as if to welcome the perfectly timed rainstorm. Ponce is masterful as Puck, darting in and around the “stage” so often he must run miles every performance.

Others similarly handle their roles very well, especially the “play within a play” bumbling laborers. Of course, with this material it is hard to go wrong. The tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe can’t help but delight, complete with outrageously humorous “wall” and “lion,” along with hilariously emotive Thisbe.

But Mr. Proczko’s Bottom makes the whole production hum and crackle with energy. Bottom has always been one of Shakespeare’s most brilliant creations, equally at home among fairies, the world of weavers, joiners and tailors, and nobles. His infectious, wide open joy in everything he encounters wins over everyone he meets, even when he’s been transformed into a donkey by mischievous Puck.

The show is well worth the risk of a few raindrops, kid friendly, and runs for two more performances, at 3 p.m. on July 30 and 31. Everyone who has not already seen it should make an effort to catch it before it departs.

Muse of Fire will return in August with “Queen Margaret,” a world premier adaption of four of Shakespeare’s King Henry plays.  

Mudlark Theater’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Mudlark Theater took to Shakespeare on the Ridge for two weekends in mid-July for a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Mudlark trains young actors to perform in real plays, and year after year keeps upping the ante and increasing audience expectation.

With school-age kids taking on all roles, many would think a dumbed-down, simplified version of Shakespeare to be in the offing. Anyone expecting such met with a pleasant surprise once again.

Many of the actors are now Shakespeare veterans, having appeared in Mudlark productions for three, four, even five or six years now. Experience shows – these kids know their way around the Bard’s work. They know the language and rhythm, and they deliver high quality productions every year.

The highlights of 2016’s performance came from different characters than the Muse of Fire’s show, dominated by Bottom the Weaver. Here, Marta Bady’s Titania, smitten by Oberon’s Puck-delivered love potion, showed, with physical humor, the power of drug-induced infatuation. She is believably smitten with a somewhat befuddled and donkey-headed Bottom played very well by Sophia Noyes.

Sam Bailey’s Flute stole the show, however, flitting across the stage in exaggerated style. “Nay, faith, let me not play a woman; I have a beard coming,” he says, when learning of the role he will play. Obviously, by the time the play within a play begins, he has grabbed and run with it. And the performance is most hilarious.

Also exceptionally good are the rival lovers Fiona Green as Helena and Linnea Bowser as Hermia. As Mudlark has shown in the past, getting actual teens to act as star-crossed lovers makes their overdone angst all the more believable. Puck’s hijinks brings out the angst, and these actors are more than capable of delivering the goods.

Sadly, the show has closed and many of these actors will be moving on. Mudlark continues to recharge, though, and everyone should make the effort to catch their performances if at all possible.

“As You Like It,” on the Ridge
Finally and last to open is Arc Theatre’s version of “As You Like It.” Now in its seventh year of bringing Shakespeare to Ridgeville Park, Arc recently announced a permanent move to Evanston. We are lucky to have them.

Once more, the cast of talented actors delivers a hilarious version of one of Shakespeare’s most loved comedies, highlighting the stunning wit of the play’s central character, Rosalind. In Arc veteran Tyler Meredith, the play has the talent to pull off one of the most intriguing and wonderful characters in the entire Shakespearean canon. She is delightful in spirit, affectation, physical humor, and a touch of innocent joy.

The play itself has little or no plot, and no overarching conflict that drives the action. Instead, the action consists of essentially excuses to get some of the best written characters in all of literature together to exchange verbal barbs.

Early on, Jeff Kurysz’s Touchstone threatens to steal the show with pure stage presence and charisma. He portrays the prototypical bawdy clown to perfection, playing off against Rosalind and Sarah Hecht’s excellent Celia.

Ms. Hecht was in the very first Shakespeare on the Ridge performance, playing Hermia in 2010’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Teddy Boone, who plays melancholy traveler Jacques, played Bottom back then. The company has come a long way since those early days, and the production delivered in 2016 is much more mature, professional, and practiced than the first. What felt like a happy novelty has become a highly anticipated annual event.

Mr. Boone’s Jacques shows his range as an actor. Exceptionally gifted as a comic actor, he provides substance to his character’s dreary words in a way that shows the character’s depth, but also his ridiculousness. When matching wits with Rosalind, Mr. Boone shows us that Jacques knows he has been bested. Yet he cares not – melancholy still suits him.

Arc usually takes an approach different from Muse of Fire, and morphs Shakespeare’s characters together to avoid having the same actor play different roles, said director Mark Boergers. The company works on the source material, editing and shifting things around to streamline characters and running time. Sometimes it works better than others. Some of the lines assigned to Touchstone, for example, seem very much out of place coming from a bawdy clown. He is just not that serious.

On the other hand, expanding Lew Wallace’s Duke Senior proves to be inspired. He is excellent as the jovial, happy-go-lucky former ruler who takes to his exile almost like a vacation. Handing him some of the songs that would have gone to Amiens, a character who did not make the cut, highlights the joy the Duke takes in finding himself in magical Arden. Mr. Wallace is so good one believes in the forest itself – he more than any other character brings the wood to life. “Come, shall we go and kill us venison?” he roars, obviously thrilled with his surroundings.

Productions of “As You Like It” can get caught up in sexual politics at times, with certain directors focusing on perceived lesbian themes that an expansive reading of the text can possibly allow. Arc has shown in the past a willingness to push the envelope at times, and the company has never shied from allowing Shakespeare’s characters the chance to deepen and grow.

Wisely here, Arc stays away from such politics and keeps these characters wholly where the text grounds them. Rosalind is clearly smitten from moment one by young Orlando, and no amount of horrible poetry – and it is truly horrible – can dissuade her. Here Ms. Meredith truly shines. Her face when Sean Wiberg’s Orlando first appears, in wrestling garb, tells the story. “What think you of falling in love?” she announced in scene two. She obviously wants this.

Ms. Hecht’s reaction to then-nasty brother Oliver is equally good. The stage is set from the beginning, and these two actors are both at the height of their game.

Later, perfectly cast Chloe Baldwin as farm girl Phoebe, and David Kaplinsky as her love-struck shepherd suiter, are absolutely believable in their roles. Insert Rosalind (disguised in typical Shakespearean fashion as young man Ganymede), and the simple but powerful young desires can fill even an outdoor stage.

And it is all very, very funny. A special thanks to cast and crew for going forward with Sunday evening’s show after the thunderstorm cleared. Saturday was the festival’s first-ever rain out, pretty amazing considering this its the seventh year.

“Ás You Like It” continues every Saturday and Sunday evening at 7 p.m. behind the Ridgeville Field House at 908 Seward St., through Aug. 14.