Shakespeare Under the Stars: 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

by Christine Malcom

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday July 11, 2016

Johanna Mckenzie Miller and Michael Joseph Mitchell
Johanna Mckenzie Miller and Michael Joseph Mitchell  

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" marks First Folio Theatre's 20th Shakespeare Under the Stars production. With the perfect setting and a strong cast, director Hayley Rice provides a thoroughly enjoyable, if not especially remarkable retelling of the tale.

Angela Weber Miller's scenic design keeps things simple. She fronts the permanent two-story structure on the outdoor stage with an Art Deco-inspired series of overlays suggesting the forest. The cut-outs within these are closed off with brown patterned drapes or left open to allow fairy and mortal alike to listen in, overhear and maximize mischief. Two lipped openings in the floor lend quite welcome magic to the fairies' entrances and exits, and there's otherwise appropriately little in the way of set pieces.

In terms of music and sound design, Christopher Kriz uses "period appropriate" music for the pre-show, then cleverly blends in pop and rock music from the last third of the 20th century once the hippy/funk-infused look for the fairies is revealed.

Elsa Hiltner's costumes also hit all the right beats with a similar blend. She sticks to the Renaissance straight and narrow for the human characters and breaks out playfully with the fairies. Oberon is perfectly, wearily sleazy in a fur-collared, scarlet brocade robe that clashes perfectly with Titania's flowing blue batik overdress. And Puck's shocking red mohawk, silvery face paint, and harvest gold dinner jacket, complete with black shoulder fringe, pulls the attractive chaos together.

With the scene beautifully set by the production team, though, the show doesn't feel cohesive. The individual scenes are, almost without exception, wonderfully executed, but there's little sense from one to the next that characters and audience are or ought to be connecting events and themes to one another.

With that minor criticism out of the way, though, it's clear that Rice and her actors are having tremendous fun with her vision. The blocking is playful and just the right amount of over-the-top to find the sparkling comedy in every line of dialogue.

Sydney Germaine is stellar as Puck. Playfulness is job one with their approach to the character, as it must be, but they also bring pathos to the role in teasing out the fairy's desire for Oberon's approval and depth in how seriously baffled by and critical of the ins and outs of mortal romance they are.

Steve Peebles embraces the idea that its impossible to go too big with Nick Bottom. His physical comedy is broad and his line delivery is skillfully patient. He bowls over the other rude Mechanicals and the pushback from his fellow players (Gordon Chow as Quince, David Gordo-Johnson as Flute, Mitchell Spencer as Snug and Stefan Brundage as Snout) infuses the familiar scenes with fresh humor. Strong as these performances are, though, during the post-nuptial presentation of Pyramus and Thisbe they can't quite remedy some awkward inconsistencies that result from over-eager trimming of earlier scenes.

The mismatched couples elevate characters that, too often, are sacrificed to the easier laughs. Sarah Wisterman (Hermia) and Ali Burch (Helena) develop a relationship that feels genuine in their brief scene before they wind up in the forest, and it's that relationship that lends weight to and intensifies the humor of their later knock-down, drag-out fight.

Tony Carter (Demetrius) and T. Isaac Sherman (Lysander) also manage to carve out distinct personalities for two Athenian gentlemen who are prone to be played as interchangeable. Sherman plays Lysander as dreamy and besotted, whereas Carter's Demetrius gets in touch with his inner dude-bro, making for a productive dynamic.

Michael Joseph Mitchell and Johanna McKenzie Miller both turn in solid performances as Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania. Both are far more memorable in their fairy incarnations, though that seems more symptomatic of less interest in the humans on the part of this particular cut of the play.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" runs through August 14 at First Folio Theatre at the Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st Street, Oak Brook. For information or tickets, call 630-986-8067 or visit

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.