The outdoor production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Chicago parks aims to connect Shakespeare with modern audiences.

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“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is one of Shakespeare’s most performed and most recognizable works. Inside, audiences encounter a supernatural maze of interconnected plot points, including a play-in-the-room and a character who transforms into a donkey.

For Chicago theater manager Beth Wolf, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” holds a special meaning: it was the play that sparked her lifelong love for Shakespeare and made her want to confront some of his darker tropes. more outdated. This summer, for the 10th anniversary of his theater company, Wolf performs the play with accuracy.

Free productions will take place every weekend until August 21 at five Chicago parks: Lake Meadows Park, Lincoln Park, Touhy Park, Gross Park and Chicago Women’s Park and Garden.

In Wolf’s hands, the play features a diverse cast who know the play inside and out, communicating its nuances and humor more clearly and vividly than you might have experienced in an English class at the high school. Sometimes this involves rewriting the Bard; each show is about casting women, black and brown actors, and performers of diverse genres who are invited to rehearsals to question and challenge uncomfortable parts of centuries-old scripts.

“It’s our job as people who decide to revive and interpret this art form to make it accessible to the people we play for, instead of just expecting them to jump through it. all those hoops,” actor Ebby Offord said. , who plays the role of Puck.

When Wolf attended a performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as a child – her very first Shakespeare play – it brought her to tears. But these were not tears of joy. “I was very upset that there were words I missed,” Wolf laughs, joking that his inability to understand Elizabethan English fueled his early interest in the bard. “I kind of took it upon myself to understand every word of that piece, which I now think I understand.”

In 2012, Wolf founded the nonprofit theater company Midsommer Flight, and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was the first play she directed. Key to his vision has been to create productions outside of traditional theaters.

“When we take this work to the parks, and it’s free and we’re in people’s communities, we find that we’re able to introduce this work to people sometimes for the first time,” said Wolf, whose production is supported by funding from the Illinois Arts Council Agency, the Driehaus Foundation, and the Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation.

For Wolf, the central vision of Midsommer Flight is “shared joy and flights of fancy” with a focus on how to most effectively share and communicate what Shakespeare is actually saying in his Elizabethan English, which may sound steeped in academic jargon.

Midsommer Flight works with two coaches, a voice coach and a text coach, to ensure that Shakespeare’s words can be clearly translated to today’s audience. The two coaches work in tandem. The text coach works with the actors to make sure they understand the meaning of each line, while the voice coach focuses on their delivery, suggesting emphasis on certain words to help audiences of all ages follow along. .

Offord said the extra time to explain the works to the actors pays off in the performance. “That’s how I got into Shakespeare – someone took the time to explain to me what was going on, and I’ll be forever grateful.”

Wolf tells the actors, when they rehearse and study the text, not only that they “must understand it”, but that they must speak it in such a way that “the audience can hear and understand it as well”.

A lot has changed for Midsommer Flight since its inception 10 years ago. Wolf got professional costumes and sets, rather than using clothes from the actors’ closets. Over the past few years, Wolf has also given the cast and community the time to critically engage with the text, especially the more difficult and uncomfortable parts. To help with that process, Wolf calls the first week of rehearsal “table work,” when the cast and crew discuss adapting a 400-year-old play to be more inclusive.

For Wolf, some of this dialogue is about giving “the female characters more agency, as well as considering who we’ve chosen, how they’re treated, not just for their gender identity, but their race or background. ethnic”.

Offord says she found a real sense of community and collaboration with Midsommer Flight. She said the cast and crew were “so open and supportive. Anytime there’s confusion or frustration, we can just call her into the room.

Wolf makes a case for the cast and characters of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to take more ownership of the work, especially when the play’s world can seem so remote from contemporary audiences. “Shakespeare is not alive to sue us for changing his words. And so if we have to change a word, we will.

For Offord, bringing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” outside of the traditional theatrical venue and into parks can also make audiences potentially feel more comfortable with Shakespeare.

“I think viewers feel a lot more encouraged to be themselves and to be responsive in a way that I don’t think they always feel like they have permission to do when they’re in a theater.”

The downside to an outdoor performance, however, can be the weather. This summer alone, the team had to quickly change rehearsal locations due to a tornado warning.

Despite the occasional challenge of working in fickle weather, for Wolf, Midsommer Flight is ultimately about creating joy. “What we want to do is get out into communities and bring people together to have a common experience.”

Performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” are at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through August 21. More details on midsommerflight.com.

Jack Morsovillo (who plays guitar) is surrounded by Kat Zheng, Hannah Mary Simpson, Elizabeth Quilter and Travis Shanahan in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

Steven Townshend / The Distant Era

Isabella DeLeo is a freelance writer for WBEZ.

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