With an ensemble of 23 actors, dancers, acrobats, and musicians brought together from all over India and Sri Lanka, director Tim Supple’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater is a stunning spectacle of the senses. Unique and enchanting, it not only succeeds at incorporating a wide range of artistic disciplines to retell Shakespeare’s classic romantic comedy, it also beautifully demonstrates the power of the Bard’s play to cross cultural barriers.
Now on the Chicago stop of its tour, this adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was born in 2004 when the British Council in India and Sri Lanka commissioned Supple to create a touring production. Drawing from the cultural and artistic style of India and Sri Lanka, Supple designed the production to be multi-lingual. In addition to the original English, at least half of the play is performed in 7 other languages: Tamil, Malayalam, Sinhalese, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi and Sanskrit. The result is a beautiful symphony of languages with the various intonations and rhythms weaving in and out of one another while sacrificing none of the cohesion of the story.
One of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream tells the story of four entangled lovers—Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena—who escape from parental authority into the woods. Meanwhile in another part of the forest, a group of workers rehearse for a play that will be presented at Duke Theseus’ wedding. Unbeknownst to the humans, King Oberon and Queen Titania of the fairies fight over their own marital problems. All of this, of course, provides the perfect opportunity for the tricks of Oberon’s mischievous servant, Puck, who throws the lovers into further confusion and amuses himself by turning one of the actors, Bottom, into a donkey.
Supple’s production is a big leap from traditional presentations of the play. With the stage covered in sand and the actors dressed in typical Indian garb, the audience is transported to a dazzling locale somewhere in Southeast Asia. Music played by traditional Manipuri instruments accompanies most of the scenes, and occasionally the actors burst out into old Indian pop songs for comic relief.
Supple does a wonderful job of bringing together elements of theater, circus, and dance. One scene that demonstrates Supple’s talent extremely well is the lullaby of Titania. As the queen fairy prepares to sleep, red fabrics and ropes descend from the ceiling onto the stage. Titania then proceeds to climb up one strand of fabric and encloses herself in it like a cocoon, while four fairies surround her performing feats of aerial acrobatics. All of this is accompanied by a slow and rhythmic chanting.
The cast is energetic and multi-talented, with every actor doubling as an acrobat or a dancer as well. It’s a testament to the casts’ talent for physical acting that despite half of the play not being in English, I found the production very easy to follow.
The technical side of the production is certainly top-notch. I was a little dubious about the set at first, as it consists initially of a backdrop of several hanging white sheets. This all changed, however, with the first appearance of the fairies. Accompanied by shrieks and drumbeats, they burst out from behind the sheet, tearing it to pieces to reveal a labyrinth of bamboo scaffolding which reaches to the ceiling. This structure opens up a new axis of motion, and the production takes ample advantage of this. In several scenes, actors climb, descend, and swing around the scaffolding, seeming to dance through the air in defiance of gravity. When Puck tells the audience that he will lead Lysander and Demetrius “up and down, up and down”, he means it literally here.
A unique and stunning production, Supple’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an experience not to be missed. I left the theater feeling as if I’d just woke up from an amazing dream. Even as the Chicago winter advances, this production will enchant you with the beauty of summer nights.