Deep in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," a weaver named Nick Bottom, the kind of ordinary, clumsy, clueless, overweight, middle-age, Cubs-and-Old Style-loving guy who can get his head transformed into that of an ass without really noticing the change, blinks up in disbelief at a gorgeous fairy queen, played by the beautiful Tracy Michelle Arnold, who has just told him that his shape, singing and beauty are so overwhelming, she cannot help but love him.
"Methinks, mistress," he says, blinking in disbelief like a bum in a bar who just got picked up by a model from a Miller Lite commercial, "you should have little reason for that."
Bottom is quick with a compensatory joke, and when he's being played by Ron Orbach, as he is in Gary Griffin's fast-paced and lively new production of William Shakespeare's comedy at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, those gags are full-throated. But in that one moving second, before his defenses go back up, Bottom becomes a stand-in for every man, and every woman, who has dared to believe in the redemptive possibility of out-of-our-league love, while simultaneously holding back the terrifying fear that this is all just a dream that could end, like the life of a now-lost loved one, or the very breath we take ourselves, at any moment, surely not of our own choosing. That crucial poignancy, that awareness of a deeper human fragility, is what's missing from both this moment and, taken as a whole, this entire production.
For sure, "Midsummer" is a comedy involving Puck, star-crossed lovers and fairies with names like Peaseblossom and Cobweb (here attired in outre headgear by the costume designer Mara Blumenfeld, a master of color). We known that things will work out, the right lovers will get together and those older, authority figures, who don't rush to bed quite so fast at the end, will nonetheless find a way to deepen their, ahem, mature love. And indeed, Griffin's visually eclectic production is entertaining, stocked with top-tier actors and filled with inventive ideas and images, comedic, Freudian and otherwise. When the action is the palace of Theseus (here a nonspecific but seemingly American locale of a century ago), the show is on firm footing. The first scene of the play is actually the second scene in Griffin's show, textually rearranged and cut down mostly to the benefit of those Rude Mechanicals, who gain in thematic prominence. But thanks to Kurt Ehrmann as Egeus, it offers an honest depiction of a father's anger and betrayal when his spunky daughter, Hermia (Christina Nieves), insists on loving Lysander (Andy Truschinski) rather than her dad's preferred guy, Demetrius (Matt Schwader). Times might have changed, but never entirely has this dynamic. We see the issues on both sides. Some of us have lived them.
But once Helena (Laura Huizenga) comes into the picture and we leave the palace for that famous bail-out wood near Athens, that link to the real problems of life seems to disappear as the lovers run farcically around the forest, well-speaking a lot of lovely lines and looking good, but never quite connecting to anything deeper, and certainly not acting like the rest of us do in the grand panic of desire and fear that still passes for wooing these days. Nieves and the guys seem to lose what they were doing back at the palace entirely, and Huizenga plays farce from the start. Although the palace-to-woods transition effected by the designer Daniel Ostling is spectacular (it involves a huge and beautiful rug that flies out from under everyone's feet), Griffin and his designers formulate a pallet for the scenes in the wood that's neither clear nor entirely inviting.
Puck, played by the irrepressible Elizabeth Ledo, is a bald-headed dude, not wholly removed from a circus strongman clown. He's a cigar-chomping riff on Sigmund Freud, it seems — at one early point in the show, a giant photograph of old Mr. Subconscious looms over Puck and the entire playing space, which would lead one to believe that Freud is in play. But Puck's motivations, not to mention his subconscious, are less clear, and ever time Ledo's inherent warmth pulls you in, something else, something harder to define, pulls you uneasily out.
That enigma could work, but Griffin also uses the common (post-Peter Brook) Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania double and although Timothy Edward Kane and Arnold are wonderfully honest, and thus moving, as, respectively, Theseus and Hippolyta, their fairyland selves are strange indeed. Kane looks like a heavy metal guy straight from "Rock of Ages" and Arnold's Titania never quite emerges as a character. You don't sense that any of these actors has really bought into a set of consistent rules (there's a layer of comment on, and remove from, these characters), and thus the different frames of this play start to wobble before your eyes. With a few exceptions (including a wonderfully intimate scene between Kane and Ledo) the necessary detail in those scenes is just not there.
With Tim Kazurinsky backing up Orbach, the Rude Mechanicals do their show in the last scene to much amusement. Back at the palace, we trust Kane and Arnold again to run this story for us, and we relax. But this is a play that goes into the woods and people find out things about life and themselves. Or so they should.
When: Through April 8
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Tickets: $44-$75 at 312-595-5600 and chicagoshakes.com