Brief series of fast-paced Shakespeare vignettes, played outdoors on Chicago's Navy Pier as a Great Lakes wind-and-rain storm howls. Snippets given by Othello, Rosalind, Romeo, the exiled Duke, Lady Macbeth, the shrew Kate, Richard III, Portia, Hamlet, and Macbeth are sandwiched between familiar scenes from Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream. A cheesy conclusion lauding the Chicago Bulls professional basketball team, but a lightning-quick success in showcasing Shakespeare's characters and stories for a young and modern audience.
Directed by Barbara Gaines. Set by Kevin Snow. Costumes by Nan Zabriskie. Lights by Carles Jolls. Sound by Robert Neuhaus.
Lisa Dodson (Witch/Lady Macbeth/Portia/Hamlet/Puck), Barbara Robertson (Witch/Kate/Rosalind/Titania), Susan Hart (Witch/Kate/Phebe/Hermia), Leonard Roberts (Othello/Antonio/Oberon), Laura Lamson (Rosalind/Juliet/Helena), Timothy James Gregory (Romeo/Petruchio/Lysander), Michael Torrey (Duke/Shylock), Neil Friedman (Jacques/Richard III/Silvius/Bottom), Christopher Peterson (Amiens/John Cade/Macbeth/Demetrius).
As part of the free ShakesPier Festival on Chicago's Navy Pier, Shakespeare Repertory presents free performances of the Bard's "greatest hits." In conjunction with entertainment from more than two hundred players from the Bristol Renaissance Faire, the intent of this 75-minute show is to entertain and pique the interest of mainstream and younger audiences with familiar Shakespearean snippets set to a rock-and-roll soundtrack. Nearly 10,000 people enjoy the weekend performances.
As a fierce Great Lakes gale brews on the shores of Lake Michigan, literally just yards away from the Skyline Stage, the Hits begin with the strains of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony segueing into The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction." A bag lady dressed in rags appears onstage, shoving a loaded shopping cart. She is joined by her wayward sisters, who amble through either side of the audience to join her on stage, and together they enact the 1.3 "fair is foul" scene from Macbeth. Bent with age and obscured with heavy garments, the three stand straight at "all hail" and shed the rags, revealing themselves as seductive and attractive young women, now clad only in colorful silk negligees. They snap their fingers and dance as they add toad, snake, and eye of newt to the "cauldron" of the shopping cart.
At the witches' finale, Othello enters from stage right, regally attired in flowing gold robes over black leather pants and boots. His 1.3 discourse on how he wooed and won Desdemona is given brittle contrast when he is joined by Rosalind. She chides him with her 3.2 As You Like It thoughts on why "love is merely a madness." The two, in similar attire, conduct a dialogue from opposite sides of the stage, and exit to the tune of The Police's "Every Breath You Take," as Romeo appears downstage. He wears a jacketless white tuxedo with red cumberbund, and he appears youthfully forlorn as Juliet is wheeled onstage atop a towering stepladder from the opposite corner. Silhouetted by a bright spotlight - "yonder blessed moon" - she gives a startled cry when Romeo first speaks to her: "I take thee at thy word" from 2.2.
The exiled Duke from As You Like It takes the stage next, with he and his fellows singing "And We Will All Go Down Together." The Duke, along with Jacques and Amiens, enact parts of the second act of the play, and Jacques' Seven Ages of Man speech is answered by the singers' rendition of "Tears of a Clown." As the exiles rush off, thunder and sudden high winds kick up along the lakefront, providing an eerie and impromptu setting for Lady Macbeth's 5.1 madness scene. An actress drifts through the audience with a candle, and she must adjust her center stage wails for the bursts of thunder that deafen her words. One rumble garners her spontaneous applause from a suddenly wind-blown audience.
The subsequent 2.1 Taming of the Shrew sequence begins with Kate shouting the song "She's a Maniac" to a dead stop. The actors bravely prevail through thunder and the sudden roar of rainfall, and the fringes of the crowd scurry under the Skyline Stage's canopy as the rain becomes torrential. An enormous roll of thunder follows Petruchio's reference to the shrew as "Kate the Cursed." The unintended sound effect amuses even the actors - who glance wryly toward the lake - and garners more appreciative applause. A "later" Kate arrives onstage as a second person, in an ingenious choice by director Barbara Gaines, and the second Kate instructs the 2.1 version of herself with the odd 5.2 speeches on love and obedience. When the second Kate finally kisses and captures Petruchio, she waves the first Kate right off the stage.
The production then endures an unplanned but necessary intermission as rain-soaked ushers help patrons to better, drier seats and the producers wait and hope for the gale to at least subside so the actors can be heard. The storm eventually falters, and after the moody bass theme from Jaws and the tag line, "Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the castle" are heard, a purple-robed Richard III takes the stage and reveals his ambitions from 3.2 of 3 Henry VI.
The 4.7 mob scene from 2 Henry VI follows, with John Cade manhandled by a raucous group of punk-rock rebels. The mob wears tattered jeans and sunglasses, bandanas and headbands, and one sports a red mohawk. They threaten to hang Cade, and their plan to "kill all the lawyers" is punctuated with a gospel choir singing "Alleluia."
The 3.5 scene from As You Like It is presented old-west style, with "sweet Phebe" a barefoot, pony-tailed, country bumpkin pursued by the straw-hat and over-alls wearing Silvius. Rosalind, played as a strutting cowgirl, wears red boots and cowboy hat. The silliness of the sequence is underscored when followed with the dark gravity of the subsequent scene from 4.1 of The Merchant of Venice. Portia's elegant pleas for mercy also draw mild laughter because of the reference to "gentle rain from heaven" coming only minutes after a fierce actual torrent.
The Merchant scene segues into two soliloquies, one by Hamlet from 3.1 - "to be or not to be" - and one from 5.5 of Macbeth. Gaines intercuts the soliloquies into a brief dialogue between the Danish prince at stage right and the Scottish king at stage left.
Hamlet considers cutting his life short with suicide while Macbeth bemoans the approach of "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow."
Gaines' fast-paced mini-production concludes with a pair of scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream. The towering curtain at the back of the stage draws to reveal a shimmering wall of silver streamers as Oberon plays his 2.1 trick on Titania. As Titania settles into a slumber with the ass-headed Bottom, the scene concludes with Aretha Franklin's "Respect," and the four young lovers bound onto the stage. They appear to have arrived directly from an early 1960s high school prom. Lysander and Demetrius both resemble Jerry Lewis from The Nutty Professor, with their flood-pants, bow-tied tuxedos, thick eye-glasses, and slicked-back hair. Helena and Hermia are their prom dates, and Susan Hart nearly steals the entire show as Hermia, pig-tailed and blustering with hilarious physicality. At one moment from 3.2, she becomes literally hopping mad, and she hops sideways and backward nearly offstage before bull-rushing almost right through the arms of the two boys.
In a concluding homage to the 1998 NBA champion Chicago Bulls - and in a shamelessly crowd-pleasing if unnecessary stunt - the cast returns to the stage for a curtain call, announced as though they were "the starting line-up" of the basketball team. They wear Bulls jerseys and share high-fives to the tune of Queen's "We Are the Champions." Then a backdrop falls, revealing a towering portrait of the Bard, only this Shakespeare wears sunglasses and a gold-stud earring, as well as Michael Jordan's #23 Bulls jersey.
Shakespeare's Greatest Hits indeed entertains, and the scattered bits of ingenuity serve to please even the most well-versed of Shakespeare's fans.
Note: A version of this article was edited and published in Shakespeare Bulletin, Vol.16, No.3, Summer 1998.