Dreaming the Dream: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Presented by the Isango Ensemble
Adapted and Directed by Mark Dornford-May
Music Arrangement by Mandisi Dyantyis
Music Directored by Pauline Malefane and Mandisi Dyantyis
Choreography by Lungelo Ngamlana

Presented at ArtsEmerson
November 10 – 22, 2015
Cutler Majestic Theatre
219 Tremont street, Boston
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Review by Danielle Rosvally

(Boston, MA) I don’t know about you, but A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of those shows that I’ve seen so often it’s nearly lost all meaning. It might be a professional hazard: as a Shakespearean dramaturge/actor/fight director/scholar, Midsummer pops onto my project radar so frequently in so many different settings: it’s a favorite of high school drama clubs, regional Shakespeare theatres, and any company looking to do “Shakespeare with a twist”. Midsummer lends itself well to many different interpretations, and has enough zany, wacky antics to support a multitude of artistic styles and choices.

The Isango Ensemble’s production was, therefore, a breath of fresh air. Benjamin Britten’s opera is nothing to write home about on its own; the music is stale and lingers on an on long after it’s contributed anything to the experience of listening to it. Shakespeare’s words are notoriously difficult to set to music due to their irregular rhythms and almost uncanny ability to resist an easy rhyme even amidst the powerful poetry that has sustained it over the last several centuries. I wasn’t thrilled with the material this group was presenting, and in any other environment it probably would have put me to sleep.

But Isango performs with such grace an aptitude that it’s tough to resist. Performed in several languages (only one of them English), this production might require a little work to get into. If you’re not overly familiar with the action of Midsummer, you’re going to want to at least Wikipedia the plot summary before you go. But once you arrive, just slip into the world of these immensely talented performers and hang on for the ride.

As is house style at Isango, the performers also accompany themselves on marimba-style wooden xylophones. It’s simply mind-blowing to watch the talented members of this ensemble blend into and out of the action, perform an aria then pick up a mallet and enter right into the music again (this time as an instrumentalist). I am always in awe of how deftly these performers manage their multiple roles with grace and poise.

One particularly standout element of this production was the fairies. Puck is portrayed by an ensemble member with peak physical conditioning; her head to toe characterization of the role is remarkable (and unlike any Puck you’ve ever before seen). The fairy band sings, dances, and gambols their way through the show; bringing life and vitality to what are often throw-away between-scenes that have to be included for exposition, but seem to drag the otherwise break-neck pace of this show into the dust. These fairies were exciting, refreshing, and joyful. They were simply a thrill to watch and I only wish they had been onstage more.

The lovers are portrayed with the usual brashness and bravado of youth; along with a fair dose of good humor to boot. The quarrel is thoroughly amusing in its physical antics, which is doubly astonishing given how proficiently they manage to croon through the entire thing. The mechanicals are as ridiculous as you can get when you’re singing twentieth-century opera (which is to say: fairly ridiculous). I mean, really, wasn’t Snug just meant to be an operatic bass?

I wouldn’t say that this is a roll-in-the-aisles performance of Midsummer (there’s just a bit much going on for the moments of comedy to land as resoundingly as they might in a more traditional production), but I can’t say that takes anything away from it. If you’re looking for a Midsummer that will breathe some new life into the piece, you’ve definitely found the Holy Grail of Shakes-opera.

 

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