Playwright: William Shakespeare. At: Chicago Shakespeare. Theater, 800 E. Grand. Phone: 312-595-5600; $60-$75. Runs through: Dec. 7. Photo by Tristram Kenton
If you aren't familiar with A Midsummer Night's Dream going into Tim Supple's adaptation of the Bard's ripe, sensual comedy, odds are you'll be bewildered before the first scene plays out. Performed half in English and half in a pastiche of Southeast Asian languages including Hindi, Bengali and Sanskrit, this Midsummer transforms Shakespeare's poetry—and his clear narrative—into beautiful cacophony and staggering physicality.
The cast—a raucous mix of nearly two dozen singers, dancers, street musicians and formally trained actors—performs acrobatics, circus-style tumbling, aerial ballet and dance numbers that wouldn't be out of place in a Bollywood extravaganza. It all makes for a Midsummer blazing with kinetic energy, a force that is shimmering, extravagant and wholly distracting from text.
As an elaborate piece of performance art grounded in the many guises of sexuality, Midsummer is terrific. As a Shakespearean comedy, it stumbles. Moreover, opening night the production suffered from maddeningly muffled acoustics. In English or Hindi, the actors were often unintelligible.
There's no denying that Supple's cast is a vibrant, passionate and fearless group. They clamber and swing from massive, bamboo-like scaffolding three stories high and spread across the width of the stage. They dangle by their heels from streamers of silk that spins crazily from the rafters. They wrestle like gladiators in the dirt flooring that covers the stage ( Reminiscent of a Zamboni operator, a fellow operating a giant roller appears at intermission to tamp and smooth the playing field ) and propel themselves into backflips and handsprings through Midsummer's fairy-infested forest.
Amid all this activity, the text takes a backseat. And while there is sonic musicality inherent to the stunning array of languages on display, it obscures both Shakespeare's sublime poetry and confuses his bewitching narrative.
The storyline might be fuzzy at best, but Supple does capture the roiling sexuality that runs like a riptide through Midsummer. Good for him. All too often, Midsummer is all pixie dust and precious, the chaos-inducing, life-threatening lust at its throbbing heart neutered into something sparkly and cute. It's worth remembering heroine Hermes risks death by refusing to marry as the tyrannical King Theseus father demands. Meanwhile, her best friend Helena is willing to put up horrendous degradation and abuse ( 'I am your spaniel. ... The more you beat me, I will fawn on you,' ) to be with a man who despises her.
Supple heightens the themes of sexual submission and domination with refreshing abandon. The mischievous imp Puck, displaying a bare chest worthy of a bear bar, is decked out in fetish gear worthy of Chicago's annual International Mister Leather pageant. When Nick Bottom is transformed into an ass, he sprouts a giant, gourd-shaped dildo—which Fairy Queen Titania rides with wild abandon. For Helena and Hermes and their love interests, aggressive tussles on the forest floor quickly border on rape. As for Queen Hippolyta and King Theseus ( and their fairy-world counterparts Titania and Oberon ) , they are lovers defined by a core of carnal joy that beams like a heat lamp off the stage.
But for all its joyfully unbridled physicality and poly-linguistic ardor, the heart of Midsummer is lost in the woods as surely as the lovers who propel its story. It's a tale rich with sound, fury and sex—but in the end, signifying little of what Shakespeare's narrative contains.