A troupe of local workmen gathers to rehearse a play they hope to perform before Duke Theseus on his wedding day to Hippolyta, conquered Queen of the Amazons. At the Athenian court, a nobleman named Egeus seeks the Duke's intervention in a family matter: Egeus's daughter Hermia refuses to marry Demetrius—her father's choice—because she loves Lysander. Before all who are assembled, Theseus pronounces Athens' law: Hermia must marry Demetrius, live as a nun, or die. Instead, she flees with Lysander. Demetrius follows in pursuit—and wherever Demetrius goes, so, too, goes Helena, Hermia's lovesick best friend...
In the forest where the four young lovers find themselves, the fairy king and queen are having family problems of their own. Enraged by his wife's devotion to a young changeling boy, Oberon plans to teach Titania a lesson. He commands his fairy Puck to fetch the magic flower that will make its victim adore the first creature she sees—who or whatever it may be. Then, observing Helena as she pursues Demetrius through the woods, Oberon takes pity on the girl and instructs Puck to find the young man and enchant him, as well. But to Puck, one Athenian looks like the next, and soon it is Lysander and not Demetrius who, under the flower's spell, has quite fallen for Helena. Discovering the motley crew of workers in the midst of their rehearsal, it takes Puck no time to spot Bottom the Weaver and cast him as the perfect love match for Titania.
All love seems destined for disaster that night. Lysander and Demetrius abandon poor Hermia in favor of Helena, who is convinced that all three are in cahoots to mock her. Titania awakens to dote upon Bottom—a mere mortal transformed into an ass. And all is Puck's handiwork, from beginning to end...
Shakespeare assembled material from a wide variety of sources: legend and folklore; earlier mythology; and published work, such as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Plutarch's Lives, Ovid's Metamorphoses and Apuleius' Golden Ass. Shakespeare's inventiveness becomes apparent in his fusing of material into an interrelated whole from disparate sources and his own imagination.
There is no extant record of the first performances of the play. Based on the nature of its language and the play's style, in addition to some topical references in the script, A Midsummer Night's Dream is usually dated between 1595 and 1596. For 300 years, the play remained popular but barely recognizable as a romantic pastoral play, with a much-abridged text and an array of music and fairy ballets. The exoticism of the fairy world lends itself to adaptations and radical reinterpretations, including the Henry Purcell opera (1692), Benjamin Britten's opera (1960), ballets by George Balanchine (1962) and Frederick Ashton (1964), and a jazzy Swingin' the Dream (1939) set in 1880s New Orleans. In 1914, Harley Granville Barker stunned critics and audiences by presenting the Dream with Shakespeare's script restored. The most influential twentieth-century production was Peter Brook's physically inventive and boldly sexual reimagining with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1970. Brook's minimalist set consisted of a three-sided, brilliantly lit white box, and actors were also circus performers, poised on trapezes or running along the tops of the set's walls.
Here at CST, two full-length and two abridged productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream have been staged previously. In the Theater's Inaugural 1999–2000 Season on Navy Pier, Guthrie Theater Artistic Director Joe Dowling guest-directed Dream. Director Gary Griffin staged an abridged Midsummer Night's Dream for student and family audiences in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004, with fairies adorned in the accessories and gadgetry discarded by a corporate world of mortals. A CST World's Stage production in 2008, staged by English director Tim Supple, was performed in eight languages. The production drew on the skills of its twenty-three artists from across India and Sri Lanka, including dancers, actors, martial arts experts, musicians, and street acrobats. In 2009, Amanda Dehnert directed CST's second abridged production of the play for student and family audiences.
Of the many film versions, notable ones include Max Reinhardt's 1935 expressionist-influenced version, starring James Cagney as Bottom, Olivia de Havilland as Hermia and Mickey Rooney as Puck. In 1999 Michael Hoffman reset the play in late 1900 Tuscany, with Kevin Kline as Bottom, Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania, Rupert Everett as Oberon, Calista Flockhart as Helena and Christian Bale as Demetrius.