You’ve got two more chances to see William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” performed by the Irish Classical Theatre Company accompanied by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra playing Felix Mendelssohn’s overture and incidental music. I confess that I arrived at Kleinhans Music Hall expecting to see an innocuous caprice, tossed together quickly, and featuring some amusing fairy costumes. I humbly admit that I left the music hall amazed and grateful for having enjoyed a memorable, luxurious, and entirely polished evening.
To begin, the BPO is always a special occasion. The thrill of ceremony implicit in an orchestral performance never fails to affect me. The excitement that begins to mount while descending the sloped aisle to my seat at Kleinhans; the arrival of the concert master; the sound of the orchestra tuning; and the climatic moment of the conductor herself, in this case, beloved JoAnn Falletta, entering with exultant confidence, promises a momentous occasion and takes me back to my earliest memories of going to concerts, ballets, and plays as a child.
The degree to which combining the play with a concert would heighten the pleasure of the event took me by surprise. To be honest, I would have been satisfied with hearing the BPO performance of Mendelssohn’s overture alone, but when the first overlapping transition to a scene from Shakespeare began, and Aleks Malejs and Vincent O’Neill entered as Hippolyta and Theseus, I was over the moon in love.
I will not be the first to observe, over the past two-hundred years, that the playful intensity of Mendelssohn’s overture, written when he was still a teenager, is the perfect prelude to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but this production, directed by Fortunato Pezzimenti, is particularly well-calibrated to the music. Far from tossed together, the scenes from Shakespeare were elegantly and expertly performed, with some truly sensational performances in the most iconic roles.
In this mid-career comedy by William Shakespeare, four Athenian youths run into the woods where they are caught in the hilarious crossfire of a marital dispute between Titania and Oberon, Queen and King of the fairies. Simultaneously, a group of craftsmen, “the mechanicals,” plan a play to celebrate the marriage of Theseus, the King of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. They too get mixed up in fairy mischief, as Oberon instructs his servant, Puck, to make Titania fall in love with the next creature she sees upon waking – the sprite arranges for her to see Bottom, the weaver, to whom Puck has magically given the head of a donkey.
All will be happily resolved in the end.
Brendan Didio is truly marvelous as Puck. This is nothing short of a star turn. Giving a performance of impressive clarity and focus, he is actually the force that holds this multi-plotted play together, especially in this abbreviated form. Didio playfully tumbles about the stage, making his magical mischief while expertly providing vital exposition and narration.
Among the mortals, Phillip Farugia does not waste the opportunity of being cast as Bottom the Weaver. In a stellar performance, among a number of stellar performances in this production, he squeezes the comic juice from every word Shakespeare lavished on one of his greatest comic creations. Even without a donkey head, Farugia’s performance as Bottom is wonderfully memorable.
Some of Farugia’s best comic moments occur when he is paired with hilarious Kevin Kennedy, as Flute, the bellows mender, who overcomes his reluctance to play a woman and comically throws his heart and soul into the role of Thisbe opposite Farugia’s Pyramus, in the wedding celebration play. I have never seen the scene better performed. Other actors might feel ashamed for taking such comical risks, but these two are obviously shameless! (Add to the wall of shame, the truly awful and therefore fantastic comic choreography for the scene by Lauren Nicole Alaimo). Farugia and Kennedy are assisted in their mirth making by the reactions of those around them, and by comic gifts of their fellow mechanicals, particularly Dudney Joseph, whose exasperated reactions as “Wall” are priceless, and by Chris Kelly as Quince, the carpenter, who serves as the director of the play within the play.
Malejs is both queenly and hilarious as Titania, Queen of the Fairies. She creates a woman who is sophisticated and regal, making her passion for an ignorant blow-hard with a donkey head all the more delightful.
The four Athenian lovers are uncommonly good, and their characterizations unusually distinct in their individuality, giving the convoluted shenanigans of the play exceptional intelligibility. Not being familiar with the work of Kit Kuebler who plays Helena (the tall one), or Kayla Storto who plays Hermia (the short one), I was quite impressed by the precision and skill of these very young actors, who hold their own with some of Buffalo’s best known actors and emerge as formidable leading ladies.
Kuebler and Storto are paired with Nick Stevens and David Wysocki as icky Demetrius and dreamy Lysander who rise to the comic occasion with athletic enthusiasm, giving taut and clearly motivated performances. These roles are clearly the prototypes for the princes in “Into the Woods.” Realize that the resolution of the plot is only possible because the magical mayhem inflicted on Demetrius, a boy who would force a girl to marry him, despite the fact that she does not love him, is never undone. (This jerk is actually willing to threaten her with death or the convent). At the end of the play, his love for Helena is magically induced, which is lucky for little Hermia. We should all wish foolish Helena luck. The interplay between the silly yet ardent boys, joined cheek by jowl, is enormously entertaining.
Costumes by A. Lise Harty add tremendously to the evening. The fairies are sublime with Vincent O’Neill looking magically kingly as Oberon, and stately as Theseus – I especially enjoyed his reactions to the wedding play. Actually, Malejs scores some of her best dryly comic moments in that sequence too.
David Lundy, Gerry Maher, and Dudney Joseph, knowingly outrageous as both fairies and mechanicals, also owe a debt of gratitude to Harty’s costumes.
The transitions between scenes and orchestral music are graceful. The vocal performance of the Women’s Choir of Buffalo under the direction of Kathleen Bassett, and vocalists Karen D’Angelo and Maria Parker as Fairies 1 and 2 added splendidly to the richness of the event.
Video designer Brian Milbrand has become a large part of the Buffalo theater scene. His work seems to be everywhere. His design for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is inspired, and perfectly measured to Kleinhans, making brilliant use of its architecture while augmenting the play with a sense of enchantment.
Similarly, the simple set by David Dwyer, transports us to the magical woods. It is amazing how much delight you can create with twinkle lights!
This show is a large undertaking. There is evidence of compacted rehearsal and the distraction of collaboration. There are moments of very mannered acting and mechanical physicality, particularly for comic effect. These can be forgiven, considering the sumptuousness of the overall effect.
Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is so familiar and so frequently deployed on television shows and uninspired weddings that it has acquired a sense of being hackneyed. When played with the full throttle passion of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra within the context of this play, however, it loses its mantle of kitsch and resonates through the hall with joyful grandeur. This is a treat among many surprising treats offered by this venture.
Do yourself a favor. Ignore the weather and head over to Kleinhans to see this show. If necessary, do as I did, and call Lyft or Uber. It will be so worth it!