Purcell’s music, likable cast win out over theatrical excess in COT’s Sin City “Fairy Queen”

Sun Nov 06, 2016 at 4:53 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Marc Molomot as Mr. Puck and Kimberly E. Jones as Tanya in Chicago Opera Theater's adaptation of Purcell's "The Fairy Queen." Photo: Liz Lauren
Marc Molomot as Mr. Puck and Kimberly E. Jones as Tanya in Chicago Opera Theater’s adaptation of Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen.” Photo: Liz Lauren

This is not your grandfather’s Fairy Queen. Nor Henry Purcell’s for that matter.

While Baroque and Classical works were a mainstay of Chicago Opera Theater in the Brian Dickie era, current artistic director Andreas Mitisek’s repertoire has been largely focused on contemporary opera.

Saturday night brought COT’s first foray into early opera with Mitisek’s modernized, Sin City take on Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, presented at the refurbished Studebaker Theater in the Fine Arts Building.

The Fairy Queen was loosely adapted from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though Purcell set no Shakespeare lines to music in his 1692 masque. Yet this “semi-opera” contains some of the English composer’s finest music, by turns witty, pensive, pastoral, and joyous, with arias, duets and choruses assigned to a variety of characters and voices.

This updated production–designed and directed by Mitisek and written by him with the California-based Culture Clash theatrical troupe–has moved the comedy’s action from an Elizabethan pastoral to contemporary Las Vegas.  Instead of Puck, the mischievous boy sprite whose spell sets the mixed couples’ romantic confusions into motion, the role here is Mr. Puck, the pink-haired proprietor (tenor Marc Malomot) of the neon-lit “FQ Club.”

The Fairy Queen and King, Titania and Oberon are morphed into Tanya and Ron, a couple visiting Vegas for Ron’s birthday. Tanya becomes infuriated after catching Ron getting a lap dance from one of the club floozies. Puck provides Ron with a secret potion (“Mextase”) to win back the angry Tanya, but the ruse backfires with her attracted to Puck instead. All the mixed couples wind up drinking the home-brew adult beverage and falling in love–or here, lust–with the first person they see.

Even the most hidebound traditionalist would have to acknowledge that the unwieldy masque genre needs all the help it can get in a contemporary performance. Yet COT’s retooling of Midsummer Night’s Dream is more clever in conception than in the working out. 

Mitisek’s work in serious and dramatic works is often inspired and thought-provoking, as in Frank Martin’s Le vin herbe, which opened the COT season. His comedies have been less successful. Wit and subtle humor are not in Mitisek’s wheelhouse, and this Fairy Queen goes miles over the top with theatrical excess, overcaffeinated mugging, and camp silliness. Hilarity doesn’t ensue. Far from being “edgy” or audacious, much of the sexual shenanigans–including Tanya on her knees unzipping Puck’s pants and a dominatrix whipping her scantily clad male slave–were just lame, unfunny and awkward.

Still, even with the show’s sophomoric moments, COT’s Fairy Queen is strangely endearing in its sweet-hearted goofiness, largely because Purcell’s music manages to shine brightly, and the hard-working cast ultimately wins one over.

This adaptation is not for musical purists either, with nearly all of the non-vocal numbers jettisoned, and music freely mined from King Arthur and other Purcell works. Even with that, the aria texts often had little to do with the repurposed action.

Kimberly E. Jones was a spirited presence as Tanya, though her low-lying soprano too often veered off pitch. Unfortunately her best vocal moment in the Dido-like Plaint (“O, let me weep”) was ruined by playing the scene for laughs with Molomot’s Puck doing handkerchief shtick.

Cedric Berry was inspired as the frustrated Ron, handling the populist dialogue like a music-theater veteran and singing with an agile and substantial bass-baritone.

Molomot’s tenor sounds decidedly worn these days yet he brought worthy comic energy to the sleazoid club owner. As the drunken, down-at heels “Shakes the Poet,” baritone Roberto Gomez was a characterful presence, getting the evening off to a lively start singing the bibulous “Come fill up the Bowl” from a balcony.

Lysander and Herman (Ryan Belongie and Darryl Taylor) are here a somewhat caricatured gay tourist couple, though Taylor’s flexible tenor provided some of the evening’s vocal highlights.

Alexandra Martinez and Scott Brunscheen made an amusing mutt-and-jeff duo as Helena and Demetrius. The petite Martinez showed her versatility, portraying both the cold business-suited Helena as well as a sexy club dancer that comes on to Ron (“Hola, Papi!”).

Jory Vinikour conducted the 16-member Haymarket Orchestra from the harpsichord, drawing a buoyant and idiomatic performance. Though vital and responsive, the playing was not always technically immaculate, with some wayward violin intonation and fitful lapses in ensemble.

Perhaps of more importance than the actual show was that this first COT production in the Studebaker Theater demonstrated what a congenial space this long-shuttered venue is for the company. The restored 700-seat room seems like an ideal home, providing an intimate space with good sight lines in a convenient South Loop location. The acoustic is a bit on the dry side for voices but the tart timbres and colors of the period instruments emerged with fine clarity and projection from the musicians’ raised platform in the pit.

The Fairy Queen will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. November 13. cot.org; 312-704-8414.

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