American Repertory Ballet: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

State Theater, New Brunswick, NJ; February 26 & 27, 2015

Jerry Hochman

Alexander Dutko as Oberon and Karen Leslie Moscato as Titania in Douglas Martins' 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Photo © Leighton Chen

Alexander Dutko as Oberon and Karen Leslie Moscato as Titania in Douglas Martins’ ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.
Photo © Leighton Chen

The two ballet versions of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” most familiar to audiences are those by Sir Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine. Both ignore the first part of the play, which introduces the characters and sets up the forest fantasy. In his new production, American Repertory Ballet Artistic Director Douglas Martin has decided to remedy the situation by presenting a version that includes the dream’s antecedent action – or, as he describes it, the ‘human’ part of the story.

That’s all well and good, but there’s a reason why the first part of the play isn’t included in the Ashton and Balanchine incarnations. Compared to the ‘dream’, its pace seems relatively plodding and confusing, and the additional characters and factual background add little if anything to the attractiveness of the fantasy. It is much easier to dispense with the stories of Hippolyta and Theseus (which Balanchine addresses tangentially, at the end of his ballet), and Hermia’s father’s demands, and simply to accept the presence of the mixed-up lovers and fairies in the woods as a given. Further, Felix Mendelssohn created music only to accompany the ‘dream’, not the events that lead to it.

So Martin here not only had to create an Act I, including patching together appropriate music, that added something essential to the action, but also formulate an Act II that rivalled the dream incarnations of other ballet companies – some of which have significantly greater resources. While I have concerns about certain of the choices made, particularly with respect to Act I, to a large extent he’s succeeded.

Act II, by far the more significant portion of the ballet, is wonderful. I smiled from beginning to end. Although some of the choreography and staging bears a surface resemblance to other versions (that’s a necessary consequence of the story), much more significant are its differences. This ‘dream’ contains interesting and novel ideas that make Martin’s ballet worth seeing regardless of any flaws it may otherwise have.

Particularly noteworthy is the way Martin has integrated the chorus, here the Rutgers University Kirkpatrick Choir, into the action. Two costumed lead singers are positioned downstage left and right as the Fairies and Fireflies prepare Titania for dreamy slumber, adding texture and visual interest to the scene without making it appear overly busy. The balance of the choir, thirty women strong, is placed upstage behind a scrim so that they blend into the set and their voices appear to emanate from the depths of the forest. Their choral support is repeated to beautiful effect as the ballet ends. It’s a brilliant coup de theatre that elevates Mendelssohn’s choral reverie from a delightful musical curiosity to an integral part of the fantasy environment, and which helps make Martin’s production truly magical.

Marc St-Pierre as Demetrius, Andrea D'Annunzio as Helena, and Cameron Auble-Branigan as Lysander.  Photo © Leighton Chen

Marc St-Pierre as Demetrius, Andrea D’Annunzio as Helena, and Cameron Auble-Branigan as Lysander.
Photo © Leighton Chen

Although my response to the nuts and bolts of Act I became more positive on second view, perhaps because the cast had reached a greater comfort level with the production by then, and while it’s not without merit, it remains somewhat problematic.

Act I is the backstory of Act II. Having defeated the Amazons in war, Theseus, the Duke of Athens, is entitled to wed Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. As humans and fairies gather to attend the nuptials. Hippolyta is seen at Theseus’ palace preparing mentally for her wedding to her former adversary; regretting her loss of independence, dreaming of prior power relationships (including with Oberon, King of the Fairies) that she’ll no longer enjoy, but looking forward without regret to her marriage. After Oberon spies her in the palace garden, the two thereupon share a remembrance pas de deux. Theseus arrives, but his discussion of the wedding plans is interrupted by Hermia’s father, Egeus, who pleads with him to order his daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius, his chosen groom (for whom Helena, Hermia’s friend, pines), rather than her true love, Lysander. Also wandering onto the palace grounds are several rustics petitioning to appear in a play to be performed at the wedding. Eventually, Hermia is ordered to comply with her father’s wishes, but she and Lysander concoct a plan to elope to his aunt’s home deep in the forest. Helena reveals the plan to Demetrius, and eventually nearly everyone makes their way into the woods…and into Act II.

Seeing the genesis of the legal and familial battle that leads to the forest fantasy, as well as the predicate predicament of the lovers, is a helpful aid. Similarly, making Hippolyta a focus of attention is an interesting idea on many levels, as is her having had a prior relationship with Oberon – the borderline between mortals and fairies and the nobility of individuals representative of each is somewhat porous to begin with. And Hippolyta’s feisty dances with the rustics are marvelous.

But what happens on stage at times undermines the clarity that the pre-dream information is intended to provide. The appearance of Oberon and his pas de deux with Hippolyta occurs too soon after the ballet begins; it’s an unexpected intrusion and the duet looks somber (not inappropriately) and forced. Worse, there is insufficient contrast between this pas de deux and a subsequent one shortly thereafter between Hippolyta and Theseus, which is equally non-passionate (she’ll be a dutiful wife, and maybe she even venerates her conquering husband to be, but she’s not in love with the guy). And then there are these two nuns who suddenly appear in full habit upstage right (representing an option that Theseus presents to Hermia if she refuses to marry Demetrius – execution or life in a nunnery), but they don’t do anything besides visualizing ‘what’s behind door number 2.’

Samantha Gullace as Hippolyta and company.  Photo © Leighton Chen

Samantha Gullace as Hippolyta and company.
Photo © Leighton Chen

Of greater concern are Egeus and Philostrate. Egeus is cardboard. He has no function other than to be a nasty father who only wants what’s best for himself, and comes across as a hyper and unfunny annoyance – though, to be fair that’s essentially what he’s supposed to be. What Philostrate is supposed to be is unclear, even, apparently, to Philostrate. In the play, he is Theseus’ combination administrative assistant, entertainment producer, and wedding planner. Here, he prances around somewhat aimlessly with some scrolls in his hands, shows a few to Theseus for approval as if he were a distant cousin of Catalabutte (the king’s functionary in “The Sleeping Beauty”), and otherwise acts like a puckish jester of sorts, smiling vacuously and trying to make everyone happy. I recognize that Martin may be attempting to draw a subtle connection here between Philostrate and Puck, since they’re played by the same dancer (he does the same with Hippolyta’s handmaidens, who morph into Titania’s fairy entourage), but the fairy/human link – as if one society is a ‘mirror’ of the other – is not emphasized, and comes across more as a necessary consequence of available dancers rather than a fairy/human social commentary.

Also, the set, though effective, contributes to the stage looking busier than it should. A columnar boundary separating the palace from the forest, although an ingenious device that allows passers-by to wander to and from the palace portico, leaves insufficient stage space for the dancers to move expansively, and for the choreography to breathe.

But with Act II, Martin sprinkles fairy dust in the audience’s eyes. It’s impossible not to love it.

The opening scene, where assorted Fairies and Fireflies frolic in the forest, sets the mood, and is a visual knockout. The dances for Titania and her fairy retinue are lovely. More than that, they’re interesting to watch evolve, and exemplify Martin’s facility for choreographing stage-spanning action. And the penultimate dance in the piece – the pas de deux between Titania and Oberon – is beautifully crafted, and includes a relatively unusual partnering position in which Oberon repeatedly directs and secures Titania with his arm positioned across her back, which adds an inherently otherworldly quality to their dance.

Beyond the integration of the chorus, other ingenious touches in Act II take it far beyond the ordinary. When Puck begins to carry out Oberon’s instructions, his attempts to identify the lovers is somewhat of a throwaway, but it’s hilarious. (He’s a fairy, after all, and a hermaphroditic one at that; how would he know?) Having the besmitten Titania’s lovemaking with the Ass formerly known as Bottom take place with the shell-bed’s back to the audience, so only her ecstatic arms are visible, is a cute and funny touch. The conclusory pas de quatre of sorts (the two commoner couples, Hippolyta and Theseus, and Oberon and Titania) ties the romances and the story together neatly. And the piece’s concluding image – after the other characters depart – of Puck grabbing the Changeling (whose gender is intentionally unclear), placing him/her/it on his knee, their backs to the audience, and presenting to his little friend the twinkling world that belongs to the fairies, is every bit as wonderful as Balanchine’s ending.

My only complaint is the number of stage slaps. One or two are funny; after that, the device becomes slap-shtick.

Samantha Gullace is perfect for the role of Hippolyta. She’s a relatively tall, dominant-looking dancer who possesses an innate regality that Martin’s choreography exploits. Although she (and the rest of the cast) seemed a bit nervous at the premiere and had some difficulty finishing phrases cleanly, her execution improved considerably as Act I continued, and she handled the scene with the rustics with impressive timing and demeanor. Her Theseus, Mattia Pallozzi, looked somewhat lost on Thursday, and although his acting improved on Friday, an added sense of gravitas might be helpful.

Jacopo Jannelli as Puck with the company.  Photo © Leighton Chen

Jacopo Jannelli as Puck with the company.
Photo © Leighton Chen

At the premiere, Alexander Dutko’s Oberon was the model of a fairy king. His execution, partnering, characterization, and overall élan were flawless. His Titania on Thursday, Karen Leslie Moscato, danced both powerfully and delicately, and reprised the feather-light bourrées that she displayed so vividly as the company’s Juliet. Friday’s Oberon and Titania were less successful. Shaye Firer did excellent work on her own as Titania, but her Oberon, Marc St-Pierre, appeared uncomfortable. But for excellently executed turns in fifth, everything from make-up to timing to partnering looked off.

Of the four human lovers, Thursday’s Hermia, Nanako Yamamoto, danced with clarity and displayed sufficient comic ability, but the histrionics were on a lower decibel level than those of Friday’s, Monica Giragosian, who shared Ms. Yanamoto’s technical skill (though perhaps with a bit less finesse), but was considerably more colorfully animated. St-Pierre did a commendable job with Demetrius on Thursday, but Dutko brought the same superior comic qualities and timing skill to the role on Friday as he did to Oberon the previous night. As Helena and Lysander, Andrea
D’Annunzio and Cameron Auble-Branigan performed well both evenings.

Puck ties the story together, and if that performance doesn’t work, no matter how good the rest of the cast are, the ballet fails. Jacopo Jannelli was a marvelous Puck, filling the character with energy, humor, and heart. And Joshua Kurtzberg’s Bottom was presented with appropriate comic flair.

The rest of the ensemble all did fine jobs too, adding texture and an important ‘likeability’ factor to the performance. But I must mention the Changeling, Emily Jorgensen from ARB’s affiliated Princeton Ballet School. It’s a non-dancing role, but her animated face and gestures made it easy to understand why Titania and Oberon were fighting over her.

Finally, the performance of the Mendelssohn by the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra, under the leadership of Kynan Johns, was top notch in every respect, and contributed immeasurably to the overall success of the production. And the costumes (by Michelle Ferrante) and cute pointed fairy ears (wings and headpieces by Cathy Hazard) added visual credibility

Although Act I may require some fine-tuning, overall, Martin’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a delightful addition to ARB’s repertoire, and a particularly welcome fantasy on a cold winter night.