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In 2010, a group of recent DePaul graduates came to Evanston with the idea of bringing free, outdoor Shakespeare to Ridgeville Park District residents. The concept hatched and fledged here, and now the Arc Theater is back on the Ridge for a 10th season. Fittingly, they returned to where they began – “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Blistering heat greeted and then canceled the preview performance set for July 19, and the next day started the same way, as the mercury crept toward 95 degrees and beyond. But near 5 p.m., the rain rolled in; thunderstorms shook the stage; and it looked very much like Arc would have to cancel a regular show for the first time in Shakespeare on the Ridge history.
Like magic, though, the clouds parted. The sweltering temperatures blew away. A lovely midsummer evening greeted those lucky enough to have chanced an evening outdoors on a day that began blistering, roiled briefly, then emerged a perfection. It was, indeed, very much like a dream.
Using the same cut of the play from 10 years past, Arc still managed a very different theater experience with gender in flux and a cast entirely new to Evanston audiences.
The youthful cast brought an exuberance and at times zaniness to the show. The material certainly does not lend itself to melancholy. But the physicality of the humor – particularly that of Hannah Antman as the sublime Bottom – makes the show shine with bubbly happiness and frivolity. One cannot help but have a good time at this show.
Shakespeare’s script brings together three worlds: the stately court of Athens, the fairy kingdom within the nearby woods, and the laboring mechanicals who serve the community. The worlds do not clash; rather, they intermingle and intersect, or run parallel, each almost self-contained within the play until the very end.
Arc has always merged characters into one rather than have a single actor play multiple roles – except with this play. With the leaders of the fairies and court worlds never appearing on stage together, it makes sense as it often does in “Midsummer” performances for Theseus to play Oberon; Hippolyta, Titania; and Egeus, Puck. The actors don or remove fairy wings onstage to signal these changes.
The main plot concerns a spat between the king of the fairies, Oberon, and his queen, Titania, over the fate of an Indian infant. Running parallel, the court drama concerns the strong-willed Hermia refusing her father Egeus’ choice of Demetrius as a husband. She loves instead Lysander.
Meanwhile, Helena loves Demetrius.
Hijinks ensue when Oberon directs his minion, the mischievous Puck, to anoint both Titania and Demetrius with a Cupid’s arrow infused flower nectar. The idea is that Titania will fall for whatever beast she lays eyes upon when she wakes, and Demetrius will fall madly in love with Helena. Of course Puck anoints Lysander by mistake, and Titania awakes to wonderful Bottom, whom Puck has transformed into a human with a donkey face.
It is outrageous, of course, but as Bottom notes, “Reason and love keep little company together these days.”
The result is hilarious. Kade Cox brings a regal manner to both Oberon and Theseus, showing the proper gravitas, and necessary ridiculousness, of a husband willing to be cuckolded just to make a point.
Marjorie Muller is excellent as the aggrieved, confused, and often angry, spurned and later overpursued Helena. Rainey Wright glows with initial strength in the face of an abusive father, then pure love for Lysander, anger at his and Helena’s perceived betrayal, only to return to blissful love.
Elliot Cruz as Lysander embodies the strapping young man a father would want for his daughter, and casting nonbinary McKenzie Graham-Howard as Lysander adds an element of gender politics to Egeus’ unforgivable demand.
Perhaps switching the roles by casting Graham-Howard as Demetrius would have been a more interesting choice, as piling onto Egeus is not really necessary. Demetrius and Lysander are basically interchangeable as characters – the text shows no qualities in one surpassing the other. Both actors are very good.
As with many performances of “Midsummer,” though, it is the mechanicals who steal the show. Newcomer Ms. Antman is a revelation as Bottom, channeling Charlie Chaplin to add outrageous gestures, large, gleeful eyeballs shining even through her donkey mask, and spirited contortions to her gait.
An Arc show, with fewer actors, cuts out numerous of Shakespeare’s original characters – in this case the fairy elves, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, Cob and Moth. Yet Ms. Antman’s Bottom still has engaging, delightful conversations with each, perfectly at home in the fairy world and unmoved by a surprising donkey head. She is simply marvelous in this role.
Jon Parker Jackson is just as good as Flute, the only other mechanical, as the Arc cut combines six characters into two. Mr. Jackson’s gentle humanity shines as he works with Bottom to craft a play as a gift to the soon-to-be-married court leaders Theseus and Hippolyta. His embrace of the crossdressing Thisbe role, and the seriousness he obviously feels for the role within a role adds an infectious warmth to the entire evening.
Most everyone has seen “Midsummer” at least once, and it never ceases to delight. Once again, though, Arc has outdone itself with spirited, good-natured, gender-bending without overemphasizing or taking away from the play’s spirit, expertly performed version of the play.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs Saturday and Sunday evenings at 7 p.m. through Aug. 11 behind the Ridgeville Park main building, 908 Seward St.
Because much of the action takes place at ground level, attendees are encourage to sit up close. Do not miss this show.