What to do on a Friday night? Oh look, the Dancing Wheels Company is performing Midsummer Night’s Dream (MSND) nearby. As we walked from our house to Cain Park’s Evans Amphitheater on that midsummer evening, we reflected on the many choreographers who have done versions of MSND. George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, and John Neumeier have choreographed their versions, not to mention Liam Scarlett if you’re swinging by New Zealand any time between October 28 and December 11 of this year. Closer to home, Cleveland Ballet has a very nice MSND that they’ll be performing next May. And remember the old Cleveland Ballet and Dennis Nahat’s MSND?
But why so many? Because, dear reader, MSND presents especially juicy opportunities for choreographers and dancers. It’s a text that relies on characters and action rather than poetry and it has all of ballet’s favorite types: royalty, lovers, fairies, and bungling rustics. Nick Bottom the Weaver makes us laugh when he begs to be allowed to play each and every part in Pyramus and Thisbe, the play within a play, but his enthusiasm would not be inappropriate for the entirety of MSND; all those juicy roles leave many an actor and dancer salivating to be double and triple cast.
So there we were in Cain Park with peepers and crickets raising their racket all around us. From the sound of it we might have been in Shakespeare’s imaginary forest near Athens.
As the lights first came up on the stage we recognized a tiered wedding cake. Ah, yes. The wedding of Theseus, duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, is imminent. And there are Brian Murphy and Mary Verdi-Fletcher as Theseus and Hippolyta admiring their wedding cake. But they don’t have long to bask in happy anticipation for soon Craig Sams III enters as an angry father with Morgan Walker as his disobedient daughter, Hermia. The father wants her to marry Demetrius (Matthew Bowman) and she wants to marry Lysander (Cody Krause) but the law of Athens is clear, Theseus decrees. If Hermia will not marry according to her father’s wishes she must either die or live as a celibate nun in Diana’s temple. A harsh judgment! What will Hermia and Lysander do?
The lovers decide to flee Athens and take refuge with Lysander’s wealthy aunt. Not a bad plan, but it requires that they find their way through the wood near Athens and in that wood lie a host of complications. Hermia and Lysander are pursued through the wood by Demetrius and Hermia’s friend Helena (Marissa Thomas), which is complication enough, but also inhabiting the wood are two factions of fairies, one loyal to King Oberon (Murphy, double cast), the other loyal to Queen Titania (Sara Lawrence-Sucato). Oberon and Titania are at odds (as choreographer Catherine Meredith has it, over a magic cloak, although Shakespeare has them quarreling over a changeling child) and until their quarrel is settled things will not be right among fairies or mortals.
Plenty of complications for a comedic farce, right? But wait! There’s more.
Oberon comes up with a plan to get the magic cloak from Titania. He’ll send Puck to get a magic flower that acts as a love potion and use it to dose Titania; she’ll be distracted by her new love (hopefully with something grotesque) and in the confusion Oberon will seize the cloak. This has never struck us as a good plan but as Murphy as Oberon lays out his scheme to Celina Speck as Puck, we can see they both think it’s an awesome idea. Oh, the goofy facial expressions as they act out the effects of the magic flower! They fawn, they grovel on the ground! In the process, Murphy needs both hands to gesture so, no stranger to on-stage excess, he holds the flower in his teeth.
We’ve read and watched this scene in the play many times but this particular choreography and performance made us reflect on what a common and effective comic trope the idea of a love potion is. Tons of dialogue, plot, and character development are rendered unnecessary as the love potion allows us to cut right to the funny part.
At this point, Meredith’s synopsis simplifies the plot somewhat but, as Shakespeare has it, when Puck exits the stage to fetch the magic flower, Oberon overhears Demetrius and Helena. Taking pity on lovelorn Helena, he vows to use the magic flower to mend their love / hate relationship. It sounds like a perfectly good plan but poor Puck can’t tell one Athenian from another, so further complications will ensue.
Next, Titania’s fairies sing her to sleep with a lullaby, thus setting her up to be zapped by Puck with the magic flower / love potion. Watching this scene, we took note of the costumes by Inda Blatch-Geib, red leotards and blue Romantic tutus on the 4 or so fairies and lots and lots of long, draping costume on Titania. In this scene and over all we liked Blatch-Geib’s work very much. (“How does Titania manage the intricate footwork of her choreography without getting tangled in her costume even once?” we wondered aloud after the performance. “Lots of rehearsal,” replied Meredith.) Another nice feature of Blatch-Geib’s costume plot is the color-coded lovers with Hermia and Lysander in red and Helena and Demetrius in blue; very helpful given all the changes of allegiance about to be brought about by the love potion.
In the next scene, Lysander and Hermia wander in and lie down to sleep apart out of propriety. Enter Puck who, unable to tell one Athenian from another, doses Lysander’s eyes with the love potion. Here’s where things start to go wrong, for who should wander in next but sad Helena, who trips over Lysander who wakes and falls madly in love with her. Puck shows Oberon his handy-work and Oberon is not pleased. Further complications ensue and it will take a while to set things right.
Meanwhile, Puck happens upon the Mechanicals rehearsing their play with Craig Sams as Bottom as the tragic lover Pyramus. As we know well, Puck puts an ass’s head on Bottom and comedy ensues as Titania wakes to fall in love with him. In this production, though, instead of the usual big donkey head, the costumer has chosen a small, cute donkey head. Aww! Can we pet him? He’s so huggable! It’s different and not at all a bad choice.
And so, not only does this comedy end happily, but everyone gets married. Rather than explain every twist in the farcical plot, we refer you to a succinct summary
Which brings us to a discussion of the music that Meredith has chosen for her MSND. Felix Mendelssohn’s isn’t the only music inspired by MSND but his is by far the best known and most frequently performed. Everyone loves this score. Almost everyone.* All the choreographers mentioned above used Mendelssohn’s music for their MSND, although they all fiddled with the scores, adding other music by Mendelssohn or other composers or commissioning new arrangements.
We’re not musically literate enough to know how much Meredith did or didn’t manipulate Mendelssohn’s score but we do want to say how her choreography illustrated and interpreted the score’s emotion and the action of the play with uncommon verve, humor, humanity, and wit. Days after the DW performance the Mendelssohn score is still happily burbling (Mendelssohn Scherzo (from Midsummer Night’s Dream), Clarinet Orchestral Excerpt – YouTube) in our inner ears. Is that the sound of hormones bubbling in the lovers’ blood and brains or are peepers and crickets raising their racket from the wetlands and foliage of Shakespeare’s forest near Athens?
We’ve already mentioned Celina Speck as Puck, literally chewing the scenery with Murphy, but we must also give props for her bounding pas de chats, which she deployed frequently throughout the performance. Her jumps were so high, her landings so elastic, that it seemed she had borrowed a (FP406-A4-V-GB (gymnova.com)) spring floor from Simone Biles.
Guest artist Brian Murphy, too, did considerably more than mug. Although he’s been dancing in Northeast Ohio for what seems like forever, he still found occasion in this MSND for high jumps and strong partnering. Remind us to call him up at his (Pilatesbymurphys) Pilates studio and ask him for the secret of his longevity.
We understand that the Dancing Wheels Company has maintained in-person company class through much of the pandemic. That consistent class work shows particularly clearly when, after Puck has used the love potion to set everything right, the four lovers (Morgan Walker, Marissa Thomas, Cody Krause, and Matthew Bowman) dance together, a quartet that includes en de hors attitude turns in unison.
As in most dance productions of MSND, students, Members of the School of Dancing Wheels Performance Ensemble, perform as some of the Fairies.
Learn more about Dancing Wheels Company and School at (Dancing Wheels – Art. Motion. Dance.) website.
Dancing Wheels performed Midsummer Night’s Dream at Cain Park on Friday, August 6, 2021 with support from Cleveland Foundation, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, Ohio Arts Council, and many others.
Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas
*Not everyone loves Mendelssohn, though, for he’s Jewish by birth and so was proscribed by the Third Reich along with Mahler and Schoenberg, not to mention Jazz and swing bandleaders and composers the Nazis identified as Black or Jewish, including Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin. Sad. Nazis miss out on a lot.