Chicago Theatre Review
Rude and Rapturous Mechanicals
A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Moody’s Pub
In the mellow night of a late august eve, partitioned from the world by rough stone walls, sheltered by a high and regal tress and serenaded by the gargle of fountains and the whirr of sparrows, a person might in Moody’s Pub to partake in stout food, sweet music, and a wild frolic with Shakespeare’s beloved story. Sammy Zeisel and Jae Daphne Kim’s Midsummer is a tunefully sweet, riotously funny take on the old favorite; trusting that energy and earnestness will crown kings, build castles, and affix ass’s knolls where none existed before. Their production is smartened up with more spit than polish, but shines brightly all the same.
The crowning glory of the production is Puck’s (Patrick Budde) musical band who when their not the bumbling amateur players of Athens or the smooth courtiers to the Fairy Monarchs tumble out eerie background music (The famous “These are the Forgeries of Jealousy” monologue regains a discomfort usually lost in contemporary productions) and Budde’s fresh compositions, grown from Shakespeare’s poetry, on an eclectic menagerie of instruments from guitar, fiddle, banjo, djimbe, and mountain dulcimer. As they lead overcharged Hermia (Chelsea Taylor), poetical Lysander (James Fleming), solemn Demetrius (Thom Anthony) and fervent Helena (Lizzy Lewis) through their hilarious misadventures the fairies/mechanicals/musicians slip eel-like through the tables, transforming into nefarious vegetation or wild animals to add extra elements of surprise or humor or simple stage magic.
Lacking as it does the conventional amenities of a theater (a backstage, a forestage traditional lighting, amplified sound) Kim and Zeisel embrace the challenge of a full frontal performance ( a challenge shared by intrepid stage managers Amalie Vega and Emma Horvath, who hie with haste around the space; thrusting banjos into passing hands and stripping and stuffing the cast into quick changes, screened by sheer force of will and audience contract, “you can’t see me”). By keeping the action fast, wild, and unexpected, investing in carefully choreographed clowning techniques, they avoid having multiple points of interest contending for our attention on the crowded terrace, preferring to set off a chain of explosive that snap our heads like meerkats, back and forth. These they cultivate in a petting-zoo of performances, like the bounding-off-the-walls antics of Bottom (Abby Pajakowski) and Peter Quince (Will Sonheim), or the lightning slick and saucy jiving of Snout (Will Wilhelm) or the Steve Carellish devolutions of poor Robin Starveling (Julia Rigby).
Two stirling performances belong to the Monarchs Oberon/Hippolyta (Natalie Houchins) and Theseus/ Titania (Pernell Myers). Houchins opts for a subtle flavor to her presentation which, though threatened to be swallowed by ambient street noise and the clink and clatter of dinner wear, gives her a contemplative and more generous soul, not merely haughty amazonian arm-candy, while her Oberon’s level gaze and temperate growl raises the hackles to half-mast and sets fear coursing to through the veins (as a veteran of many a Midsummer I cannot say how refreshing it is to be fearful of Puck in the face of Oberon’s wrath without an accompanying power chord or Force choke). Myers however steals the show, finding the perfect meld between Houchins compelling soft-sell and Pajakowsi’s endearing antics. As Thesus, he opts for a tong-tied performance, showing the king so bound up in the beauty and mystery of his bride-to-be that it takes him time to swing his attention to the pesky love-anguishes of others. And as Titania, Myers is nothing short of electrifying, a magnetic presence that draws us in like a net. Possessed with a sensual self-assureity and a gaze that bores into the audience like an awl (no small skill in a production highly dependent on eye-contact and audience address) the Fairy Queen captures our attention and holds it dancing.
Kim and Zeisel’s Midsummer is a rollicking good time. It embracing the challenges of open air, unconventional, food filled setting and strings itself together with beautiful music, wild theatricality, and a genuine sense of fun. Very much in the tradition of “Have barn, will put up show”, the production tumbles among the tables and sets its audience’s blood buzzing like bees to make a thoroughly enjoyable and life-affirming evening.
Reviewed by Ben Kemper
Moody’s Pub 5910 N Broadway St. Chicago, just off the Thorndale Redline Stop.
Every Monday and Tuesday at 7:00
Show is Free though Dinner is not.
Seats 50, with 25 Reservable Seats.
More information on the show can be found at https://rabidbats.squarespace.com/midsummer/
For more information on this and other plays can be found at www.TheatreinChicago.com