THE BASICS: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, Shakespeare’s most famous comedy (here edited for time) performed by the Irish Classical Theatre Company, directed by Fortunato Pezzimenti, accompanied by the incidental music of Mendelssohn, presented by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Women’s Choir of Buffalo, conducted by JoAnn Falletta, opened to great laughter and applause on Friday, January 17 and has two more performances, Saturday, January 18 at 8 p.m., and Sunday afternoon, January 19 at 2:30 at Kleinhans Music Hall, 1 Symphony Circle (885-5000) www.bpo.org. Runtime: 2-1/2 hours (90 minutes first half, 15 minute intermission, 45 minutes second half)
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: As reported in my preview this not one of those overly complicated Shakespeare plots. I didn’t know then that the original script has been edited for time down to the basics. So things move along briskly. Basically, Shakespeare has three sets of lovers: Theseus, the Duke of Athens who is about to marry Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. Meanwhile, young Hermia has been told by her father that she must marry Demetrius even though she’s really in love with Lysander and vice-versa. Hermia and Lysander plan to elope and will meet in the forest by night. Young Helena who IS in love with Demetrius is frustrated by his cold, cold heart. And, into the woods we go.
Oberon, King of the Fairies, is mad at his wife Titania, Queen of the Fairies, because she won’t give him her ward, the “Indian changeling” to be his henchman. So, Oberon summons his “fixer” – a fairy named Puck – to gather herbs and flowers that will make Titania fall in love with an animal so that in her shame, she will accede to Oberon’s demands. While in the woods, Oberon encounters the unhappy Helena, and, feeling sorry for her, instructs Puck to use those same herbs and flowers to make Demetrius fall for her. But Puck gets things wrong. And, later, just for fun, Puck also messes with one of the local craftsmen, Bottom, who now, through magic, has the head of an ass. And that’s the “animal” that Titania falls in love with. “What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?” she says upon seeing this creature.
The concluding “play within a play,” with the local tradesmen planning, rehearsing, and then performing the tale of the ill-fated lovers Pyramus and Thisbe at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta is hilarious.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: The abundance of experienced acting talent on stage would make just the play alone enjoyable, but the music by composer Felix Mendelssohn, played by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, just a few feet upstage, elevates the show to a whole other level.
As a classical music radio host for over 20 years, I have heard many recordings of Mendelssohn’s music, but once again I tell you that there is no substitute for hearing it live, primarily because the “it” changes when it’s not squeezed through a pair of stereo speakers or earbuds. I heard sounds and combinations of sounds that I’d never noticed before. If you have any doubt that Mendelssohn was a genius, just listen to his music live.
The string players, with their bows lightly dancing, were astounding as the melodies bounced around, and the winds were also at the top of their game. Special kudos go out to the French Horns and tuba for an especially “round” sound.
And the singing by the Kathleen Bassett directed Buffalo Women’s Chorus (which shares personnel with the famed Vocalis Chamber Choir) was excellent as expected. The soprano soloists (Faerie 1 and 2), competing with the mic’d actors and the orchestra, were, unfortunately, a little drowned out.
I will single out a few actors below, but the assemblage of Vincent O’Neill, Aleks Malejs, Chris Kelly, David Lundy, and Gerry Maher, all Irish Classical regulars whom we’ve enjoyed many times over the years were just what you’d expect.
What was unexpected was the incredible athleticism of Brendan Didio as Puck on that very large Kleinhans stage. And the four young lovers (Kit Kuebler, Nick Stevens, Kayla Storto, and David Wysocki) were also surprisingly agile while their fresh young voices and clear enunciation made the language very easy to understand.
But at the end of the day, under the direction of Fortunato Pezzimenti, three comedic actors, all Buffalo favorites, really nailed it. Phil Farugia as the overeager Bottom who ends up wearing the head of an ass; Dudney Joseph as Snout who plays “The Wall” in the play-within-a-play, but especially Kevin Kennedy as Flute, who plays Thisbe, brought the house down.
The set design by David Dwyer, although “minimalist,” was more than adequate to service the play, and it was made magical by the lighting of Dyan Burlingame and projected video by Brian Milbrand. The costumes by A. Lise Harty with Hair and Makeup by Susan Drozd were a nice blend of “fantastical” and realistic, depending on the character. In any play with actors doubling roles, it’s critical that each persona is distinctive, and that worked wonderfully. With all the costume changes, special kudos to the “behind the scenes” personnel, including Production Manager Greg Natale, Production Stage Manager Michelle Eisen, Assistant Stage Manager Eliza Zanolli-Stiles, Wardrobe Supervisor Vivian DelBello and Props Manager/Mistress Roy Walker and Diane Almeter Jones.
Depending on your age, you’ll have many more chances in your lifetime to see A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. As a matter of fact Shakespeare in Delaware Park will offer the play, directed by Saul Elkin, July 23 through August 16, 2020 on “Shakespeare Hill” in Delaware Park near the Rose Garden and Marcy Casino. It will be SIDP’s second offering this coming summer, after AS YOU LIKE IT (June 18 – July 12, 2020) directed by Steve Vaughan.
But the actuarial odds before you shuffle off this mortal coil are that this weekend will be your only opportunity to see the play by Shakespeare with the music that Mendelssohn wrote for it. In the spirit of “Just One Before I Die” you may never see the Bills win a Superbowl and you may never see the Sabres win the Stanley Cup, but you hold the power to buy a ticket to this winning production.
Lead image: L-R Aleks Malejs as Titania, Dudney Joseph as Mustard Seed, Phil Farugia as Bottom (the ass)
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!