Notre Dame's "Midsummer" treat a welcome respite from the heat

Author: Chris Jones

August 2, 2003 SOUTH BEND, Ind. – In a state with a chronic lack of quality summer theater, the University of Notre Dame is making a serious financial and artistic drive to be the biggest Indiana force in the growing realm of summer Shakespeare aimed at family audiences.p. Summer Shakespeare at Notre Dame is only in its fourth season and, based on a look at this year’s pleasantly if predictably fanciful production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” it’s not a font of daring theatrical innovation. But with a single-show production budget in the order of $400,000, a slew of corporate sponsors, and a big clutch of Equity contracts, it’s already selling out its houses and outspending all but the largest Chicago theaters.p. Clear, warm and utterly in sync with its audience, the Notre Dame “Midsummer” offers one of those hazy, lazy evenings where the bucolic pleasures bubble. Like all decent productions of “Midsummer,” this affair offers the kind of night that makes one anticipate the rude, didactic shock of Labor Day (just four weeks away, alas!) with pure horror.p. With the likes of such well-known Chicago actors as McKinley Carter, Bradley Mott, Jason Denuszek and Susan Hart all treading the boards in Notre Dame’s intimate, century-old Washington Hall under the direction of Jessica Thebus, Summer Shakespeare looks a lot like the fair-weather home of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Even Todd Rosenthal’s setting — an arboreal piece of whimsy replete with lanterns and flowers that pop out of holes — was built in Chicago and trucked to Notre Dame.p. Summer Shakespeare is the brainchild of emeritus Notre Dame professor Paul Rathburn. An iconic local figure who serves as the operation’s genial host, Rathburn has been smart enough to hire people who know what they are doing on a stage. Thebus is one of Chicago’s most capable young directors - and she typically casts very well. Even when they’re not exactly stretching themselves in new directions, thespians of this quality offer the kind of easy and genial felicity with classical language that simultaneously enhances sophistication and accessibility.p. Thebus’ “Midsummer,” which closes with two performances Saturday, owes some significant creative debts to Gary Griffin’s widely popular short version of “Midsummer” at Chicago Shakespeare, which also featured Denuszek in the role of Puck.p. It’s no carbon copy- Thebus not only has directed pretty much the whole text, but she also has avoided Griffin’s overt pop-cultural references (no rapping spirits here) in favor of a more traditionally romantic world replete with giggling lovers and harmonizing fairies with flowing locks. Denuszek, a very funny young actor, still has his Alan Cumming-like moments of wickedness, but he need not fear that he’s likely to give offense on America’s most tradition-bound Roman Catholic campus.p. Not all of the physical activity flies. The fairies sing beautifully, but their choreography looks like a celestial cheerleader routine. But the highlight of the night is a lovely performance from Notre Dame student Megan E. Ryan. Focused and vulnerable as Hermia, Ryan more than holds her own with McKinley Carter, whose Helena is both elegant and uncommonly well spoken.p. Hart, who plays Titania/Hippolyta, injects a necessary note of irony into all the pretty pictures. That’s just as well, because Martin Yurek positively oozes bonhomie with a version of Oberon/Theseus that suggests not a single problem in the world. And led by Mott, the Rude Mechanicals manage to be very funny, which, on a warm summer evening in a lovely old theater, is all one could ever ask of a Rude Mechanical with an Indiana audience in his pocket.p. p. Copyright – 2003, Chicago Tribune

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