Rowdy and wry, “Will Kemp” returns to Newberry Consort

Sat Oct 20, 2018 at 12:27 pm

By Hannah Edgar

Steven Player performed as “Will Kemp” with the Newberry Consort Friday night.

Steven Player has become something of a fall fixture in Chicago’s early music scene. The British triple threat (instrumentalist, dancer, singer) opened the Newberry Consort’s 2016-17 season with “The Clown: Kemp’s Jig,” as Shakespearean actor Will Kemp, and last October, he made a scene-stealing appearance with Barokksolistene in the University of Chicago Presents series.

For the Consort’s season opener at Newberry Library, Player reprised his role as Kemp, the real-life clown who is thought to have inaugurated several of Shakespeare’s comic roles. While Kemp’s collaboration with the Bard ended around 1599, when he departed—or was dismissed from—the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, let’s hope that the talented Player’s lively Newberry Consort appearances long continue.

“Will Kemp Returns: A Jig Revival” is exactly what it sounds like, acting as both sequel and expansion to Newberry’s program of two years ago. The Consort dusted off two authentic Elizabethan jigs (short comic intermezzi performed alongside longer plays) from that performance, Singing Simpkin and The Cheaters Cheated. The rest of the program was filled out with broadside ballads and other accompanying material, set to arrangements by co-director and violinist David Douglass.

Also true to the theme, there was intermission entertainment: violinist Tim Macdonald and bass instrumentalist Jeremy David Ward regaled with a thrilling set of old Scottish fiddle tunes, which only got more thrilling as they shredded on. (“We do play slow music, I promise, just not today,” Ward quipped.)

Player, as the rowdy and wry Kemp, brought his trademark physicality to the role, with flying leaps, cartwheels, aerial splits, and tap-dancing interludes. All were executed with percussive power and rhythmic precision, supporting the often-driving pulse established by the Consort’s vivacious band.

But Player’s Kemp is, after all, a Shakespearean fool, rich with hidden depth. Some of his dances were buoyed by an almost courtly grace, and his singing—in a voice gruff but mellifluous—was poignant, as was his guitar duet with Newberry Consort co-director Ellen Hargis.

Both Singing Simpkin and Cheaters Cheated are bawdy, juvenile stuff, but in the hands of Friday’s performers they yielded genuine delights. Singing Simpkin, a cuckoldry farce, sees Player stuffed Falstaff-style into a trunk; the expansive and even touching Cheaters Cheated tests the boundaries of the genre and provided some of the musical highs of the night.

Co-director and soprano Ellen Hargis, a centripetal force throughout, has a voice of stamina and brilliance if not heft. As supporting characters in both jigs, Eric Miranda and Corey Shotwell made as delightful a comic pair as a musical one, Miranda’s pliable, warm baritone nicely complementing Shotwell’s brighter, brassier tenor. Though Meriem Bahri was somewhat hard to hear, the costume designer gamely stepped in as the Servant in Simpkin.

There are occupational hazards in performing such knockabout farce. An unexpected one on Friday was the floor. During Cheaters Cheated, an obtrusive fold formed in the rubber mat on the stage; like a gun in Chekhov, it wasn’t a matter of if but when someone would trip over it. Surely enough, during a faux scuffle between Player and Miranda, the latter was sent stumbling into the back curtain of the stage, but convincingly played it off as part of the action.

When Player took the stage to close out the evening, guitar in hand, he made no such attempt. Breaking the fourth wall with an improvised bit of choreography, he hopped over the offending hazard, then hopped over it again, and again, smiling impishly all the while.

“Will Kemp Returns: A Jig Revival” will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at the University of Chicago’s International House and 3 p.m. Sunday at Northwestern University’s Galvin Recital Hall in Evanston.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment