We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Friday, September 12, 2014


Lauren Shannon and Matthew Cohn (photo by Peter Sylvester)

A truly unique and special event was given last night at the historic Casa Duse in Brooklyn--an hour train ride but worth every minute.  Two dozen lucky participants sat at long beautifully decorated tables watching the remarkable New Place Players performing William Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream.  During the several intermissions we were served a delicious multi-course dinner catered by Chef Max Hansen.  There was food for the body as well as the soul.  The event had absolutely nothing to do with what one thinks of as "dinner theater".

Casa Duse is named for the famous actress Eleonora Duse and the New Place Players are named for the house Shakespeare purchased for his family in Stratford Upon Avon in 1597.  Such was his genius that over four centuries have passed and his plays are regularly studied and performed, not to mention the operas and ballets which were derived from them.  It is not only his poetry in iambic pentameter that delights us but his insight into human nature.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream he addresses the follies of lovers.  Theseus, Duke of Athens, (Matthew Cohn) has won Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, (Lauren Shannon) by the sword and now must woo her on the eve of their marriage.  

Four young people from Athens are brought before the Duke by Egeus, Hermia's father (Matthew Augenbaugh) to resolve the issue of Hermia's disobedience.  Hermia (Heather Boaz) is in love with Lysander (Aaron McDaniel) who returns her love--but papa wants her to marry Demetrius (Will Gallacher).  Helena (Olivia Osol) is crazy about Demetrius who "loves her not".

What a mess! By Athenian decree, if Hermia refuses her father's orders she must enter a convent. So, the couple decide to elope and then get lost in the woods.  Enter Oberon, King of the Fairies and his witty sidekick Puck, also known as Robin Goodfellow (Adam Patterson) who try to solve the problem through magic and make things worse, much worse, before they make things better.

Oberon is played by Mr. Cohn and Ms. Shannon portrays Titania, the Fairy Queen. That pair is in a different stage of their relationship--not at all lovey-dovey and involved in a bitter power struggle.  Magic is also used here to win the upper hand. This magic is the juice of a certain flower that makes people fall in love instantly with the first person they see when they open their eyes.

Enter a group of rustic tradesmen who wish to be chosen to present an entertainment for the Duke's wedding.  Perhaps Shakespeare was inspired by the antics of his own theatrical troupe; the actors are not happy with their assigned roles.  Bottom the Weaver (Emilio Tirado) is hilarious as he wants to play every role.  He also gets to play a role he never anticipated as Puck transforms him into an ass and sprinkles the "love juice" on Titania's eyes.

Eventually, this being a comedy, everything works out in the end and the rustics get to produce their ridiculous play, using wonderful sock puppets,  with a great deal of disdain coming from the sarcastic Philostrate, Master of Ceremonies (Adam Patterson).  The Duke himself is more charitable and we can predict a happy future for all concerned.

Readers may have noticed that several actors played two parts and succeeded in portraying very different characters.  The altogether splendid cast also included musicians doubling as puppeteers manipulating Indonesian-style stick puppets, gorgeously illuminated and more convincing as fairies than actors have been.

As a matter of fact, everything about this production, so effectively directed by James Ortiz (a polymath who also designed the costumes, along with Molly Siedel, and the puppets), shone with imagination and originality.  The verses were beautifully spoken with fine diction and yet sustained a colloquial feel.  Costuming was contemporary for the humans and exotic for the fairy kingdom. The action was highly physical which also lent a contemporary feel.  There was not a whiff of staidness.

Musical Direction and Sound Design by Flavio Gaete was subtle but well chosen and effective--much of it by Mendelssohn.  Mr. Gaete also appeared as Snug the Joiner and Titania's fairy Mustardseed..  Co-director Craig Bacon performed the role of Robin Starveling the Tailor. Morgan Auld was Peter Quince the Carpenter; John Wahl was Francis Flute the Bellows-mender and Tom Snout the Tinker was performed by Matthew Augenbaugh.  Each and every performance was perfect in tone.

It was a rare privilege to see and hear Shakespeare up close and personal (which seems to be our theme for the week--see yesterday's review).  We felt as if we were part of the court of Athens and part of the fairy kingdom.  We felt as if we knew the four young lovers, so contemporary were their passions, their despair, their confusions.  Never ever have we enjoyed Shakespeare more.

Should you have the opportunity to attend one of these special events, we hope you will seize the moment.  You would be sure to agree with our assessment.

(c) meche kroop

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