Mendelssohn, Bard Meet In Hilarious N. Carolina ‘Dream’

A magic potion undoes two pairs of young lovers in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,'  semi-staged with N.C. orchestral and choral forces. (Michael Zirkle )
A magic potion undoes pairs of young lovers in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ semi-staged and set to music in N.C.
 (Concert photos by Michael Zirkle)
By Jackson Cooper

Chapel Hill, N.C. – “Just a Short Trip Away. Three Thousand Miles from Ordinary.” These are not the words of the Bard, but an advertisement on the back of the North Carolina Symphony’s program book that single-handedly sums up the trip concertgoers took at Memorial Hall on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus as the orchestra concluded its season with an impressive Midsummer Night’s Dream program.

Nick Bottom wakes up as a donkey, fussed over by fairies. (Michael Zirkle)
Nick Bottom (Luis Quintero) wakes up as a donkey, fussed over by fairies.

The concert was anything but ordinary for the organizations involved. Billed as “the event of the season,” it lived up to its claim: three North Carolina organizations teaming up to present a semi-staged version of Shakespeare’s most sophisticated comedy. Students from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts’ School of Drama served as the actors, with Drama Dean Carl Forsman directing; the UNC-Chapel Hill Chamber Choir provided exquisite singing; and the state’s own symphony orchestra provided the evening’s accompaniment led by music director Grant Llewellyn.

The national significance of all this exists on three levels. The UNC School of the Arts is America’s oldest state-supported conservatory. UNC-Chapel Hill is North Carolina’s oldest state university. And the N.C. Symphony is said to have been the country’s first state-supported orchestra.

Following the success of Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus in the orchestra’s 2009-10 season, a joint production with Playmaker’s Repertory Company (which, as Carolina Playmakers, cradled Paul Green), it was clear that another collaboration was in order.

This time around, alongside students from the UNCSA, Ray Dooley, head of the Professional Actors Program at Chapel Hill, was the mischievous Puck.

Choral and orchestral forces were led by N.C. Symphony music director Grant Llewellyn.
Choral and orchestral forces were led by N.C. Symphony music director Grant Llewellyn.

The centerpiece of the program was the incidental music written by Felix Mendelssohn, but to accompany other moments in the text, the concert also featured works by composers that were integrated quite nicely and added rich colors to the scenes.

Shakespeare’s tale of mismatched lovers, magic, rebirth, and spiritual awakening was abridged cleverly by Forsman so as to hit all of the major plot points of the script, highlighting the storylines of the young lovers (the royals) and of the innocent theater troupe that set out to provide the royals with the story of Pyramus and Thisbe.

Llewellyn mixed Mendelssohn with other musical scores.
Llewellyn mixed Mendelssohn with Ives, Adams, Wagner and more.

The program provided concertgoers with a wide range of pieces, some directly relating to Shakespeare’s text (Mendelssohn’s music and Michael Gandolfi’s Themes from a Midsummer Night) and others seemingly unrelated (Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” John Adams’ Shaker Loops, and Wagner’s “Forest Murmurs” from Siegfried). All were tightly and brilliantly folded into the play.

The orchestra played each piece with fervor and excitement, accompanying the scenes so as not to pull focus from the actors on the stage. A prime example came in the scene where Oberon and Titania argue over giving up her changeling boy for Oberon to use as a knight. The scene explores the uncertainty of the child’s future, and in this scene, the orchestra played Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” heightening the unknown. The evening was filled with beautiful moments like this.

The first movement of Adams’ Shaker Loops accompanied a scene of tension, creating near-anxiety with its never-ending runs. One of the standouts of the evening was cellist Bonnie Thron’s rendition of “Serenade,” a delicate air from Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, arranged by Erich Korngold.

During some scenes, a chamber ensemble provided short interludes, among them jaunty movements from Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale.

As the mischievous Puck, Dooley reprised his role in Playmaker’s Repertory Company’s production of the play last November, creating a sly, acrobatic Puck who consistently surprised us.

Paul Niebanck and Mary Irwin were the attractive power couple, Oberon and Titania, displaying clear understanding of their words, even if their physicality seemed somewhat mechanical at times. All the actors who played young lovers receive high marks: Katie Ailion was a fine Helena, one of radiant innocence which she abandoned (rather hilariously) when all turned against her. Emma Geer’s Hermia was simultaneously every man’s dream girl and nightmare, comedically balancing good-girl mannerisms with rebelliousness. Dylan Arnold and Morgan Hahn, equally charming, were perfect in their roles. Alex Gagne, as Philostrate, stole his few moments of the show.

The rustics perform 'Pyramus and Thisbe' as only they can.
The rustics delight the crowd with their riotously comical ‘Pyramus and Thisbe.’

As the would-be Renaissance man and amateur thespian Nick Bottom, the weaver, Luis Quintero had excellent command in his scenes with his fellow craftsmen, and in his donkey incarnation he  displayed top-notch, Marx brothers-like physical comedy.

Bottom and his fellow misfit actors ruled the stage in their riotous performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, which brought down the house. Matthew William was a hyper Peter Quince, showing off his ballet skills in the final scene. William Valles and Beth Hawkes stood out in the group for their bold, witty choices as Francis Flute and Tom Snout. Hawke’s “wall” speech was more than worth the ticket price.

Director Carl Forsman
Stellar direction: ‘Dream’s’ Carl Forsman

Concerts like this are daring in scope, and all the involved organizations succeeded in bringing a new, immersive theatrical experience to concertgoers. Llewellyn’s control over the orchestra and his understanding of all things theatrical secured his place as the ringleader of the evening’s shenanigans. Abetted by Carl Forsman’s stellar direction and Susan Klebanow’s leading of the choir, Llewellyn made this the event of the season. Much like a dream, you did not want it to be over, yet once it was, you were left with a feeling of joy that you had experienced it firsthand.

This production will be repeated on May 9 in Raleigh, in the orchestra’s home auditorium, Meymandi Concert Hall. For details, click here.

Jackson Cooper writes for CVNC, an online arts journal in North Carolina. He is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and the Conductor’s Guild. He is a student at UNC-Greensboro and serves on the board of PARK Productions in Pittsburgh.