Sunday afternoon, Jan. 31, New Brunswick’s State Theater filled to capacity for the last of three concerts of Felix Mendelssohn’s so-called incidental music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” William Shakespeare’s comedy in which unsuspecting nobility are foils to imaginary humanoid wiseacres and all their mischief. Unique among music topics, maestro Jacques Lacombe led New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO)’s masterful musicians, who performed the complete score, imbuing with life 12 actors from The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (STNJ), who enacted the abridged play directed by Artistic Director Bonnie J Monte. Shakespeare and Mendelssohn simultaneously—not an everyday occurrence.
All actors doubled roles. Ben Stirling and Sarah Swift interpreted two couples, mortal and otherwise: the bookending Duke and Duchess (Theseus and Hippolyta) and the intervening King Oberon and Queen Titania. As the two mortal couples: Jesmille Darbouze and Jon Sprik were Helena and Demetrius (engaged to an unwilling Hermia), and Lindsey Kyler and Jackson Moran were Hermia and Lysander, who initially has eyes only for Hermia. Costume designer Samantha Reckford’s sleek attire made possible what must be the fastest repeated costume changes by any ensemble, since the four lovers doubled as Titania’s train: Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed.
Most people familiar with Mendelssohn’s music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” know its delightful overture and the ubiquitous “Wedding March.” What may astonish some is that the composer wrote them fully 16 years apart. He was just 17 years old at the overture’s 1827 premiere; the remaining pieces comprising the score of incidental music came in 1843, four years before his tragic early demise at age 38. The sprightly playfulness and bustling energy that runs through the nearly one hour of music suggest inspiration all in one sitting.
Mendelssohn set Shakespeare’s own verses in two choral numbers with soloists: “You spotted snakes with double tongue” and “Through the house give gathering light.” The women of Montclair State University Prima Voce intoned these with soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists rotating among the three performances. Vocal honors Sunday afternoon fell to Karen Levandoski and Cornelia Lotito, superb choices, both. All women performed to professional caliber under Heather J. Buchanan’s expert direction.
It’s difficult to determine who had minor roles in view of how much each actor does and says. The playful Puck, with a propensity to misperceive, is arguably the major-est of these roles, and Felix Mayes made the most of it, proving Puck is the driving force moving the subject Athenians and the immortal denizens of Athens’ sylvan environs. (He doubled as Philostrate, Duke Theseus’ majordomo.) His is unquestionably the most famous line from the play, spoken to Oberon: “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
The chief purpose of Shakespeare’s Athenian craftsmen is seemingly to stage “Pyramus and Thisbe,” which Philostrate describes to Theseus as: “A play there is, my lord, some ten words long, / Which is as brief as I have known a play; / But by ten words, my lord, it is too long, / Which makes it tedious; for in all the play / There is not one word apt, one player fitted.” These “Hard-handed men that work in Athens here, / Which never labour’d in their minds till now,” rehearse their play outside Athens, where Puck and Titania’s train repeatedly spook and trick them.
Patrick Toon admirably played Peter Quince, the carpenter, who acts as playwright and director of this play-within-a-play. He also played Hermia’s litigious father, Egeus. James Michael Reilly as Nick Bottom, the weaver, hilariously developed and delivered the role of Pyramus. Francis Flute, the bellows-mender, played his heroine, Thisbe, and Jonathan Finnegan camped up the role in anything-but-feminine falsetto.
Tim Liu played Tom Snout, the tinker with a constipated walk, and, in “Pyramus and Thisbe,” a beguiling “Wall,” through a chink of which the title characters respectively did their wooing and were wooed. Quentin McCuiston, billed as “a New York City-based actor and writer,” played Snug, the joiner, and a “Lion” in the “tedious” play, which, in the over-the-top acting, was the very opposite of tedious.
Robin Starveling, the tailor, has only 32 words in Shakespeare’s play, so the award for the minor-est role would certainly go to him. His award in this case was to have his role omitted altogether, a few of his words appropriated by fellow Athenian craftsmen.
Standouts: Jesmille Darbouze and Lindsey Kyler in Act III, Scene 2, probably the most riotous catfight in the entire Shakespeare canon.
Kudos to James Michael Reilly—the most veteran STNJ company member, appearing there throughout 25 seasons—not just for his career’s understandable longevity, but especially for making “such a [charming] tender ass” of himself.
Canadian Sarah Swift, also a writer, made an impressive debut with STNJ as Hippolyta/Titania; it will be a pleasure seeing her appear someday—hopefully soon—on their Main Stage and Outdoor Stage.
And, of course, who could have pulled off the tremendous acting coup other than Bonnie Monte, STNJ’s Artistic Director, who just last month completed her 25th anniversary season with the company? Speaking briefly to byteclay.com before the concert, she extolled Jacques Lacombe’s unique artistic vision and collaborative spirit. “He will be sorely missed.”
Maestro Jacques Lacombe soon departs for a new position with Germany’s Theater Bonn. This was his last appearance in New Brunswick during his tenure as Music Director. His successor to helm NJSO is Maestra Xian Zhang. His unique, thoughtful programming will be missed. Who else will undertake to unite seemingly disparate artistic entities like the Symphony and STNJ, showcasing great music inspired by seminal stage works and seminal stage works inspired by great music?
Here’s hoping the magnificent maestro will return often to the NJSO podium. Best wishes for the soon-to-be-turned-and-written-upon new page in his career.
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