Chicago Opera Review: THE FAIRY QUEEN (Chicago Opera Theater at the Studebaker Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 6, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


Marc Molomot (Puck)What happens when a so-called revival needs resuscitation? That’s the D.O.A. problem with this perverse collaboration between Chicago Opera Theater and Culture Clash, an “iconic” California-based performance troupe who live down to their name.

Billed as a “Restoration spectacular,” Henry Purcell’s 17th-century gem The Fairy-Queen, performed three years before the composer’s early death at 35, consists of five masques, both metaphorical and mythological. Played between the acts, these “semi-operatic” movements delivered musical interludes within a four-hour presentation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Sprightly and seductive, Shakespeare’s amorous mayhem and supernatural shenanigans (“How quickly bright things come to confusion!”) alternated with Purcell’s majestic, deathless music and, alas, Thomas Betterton’s doggerel verse. (His weaker contribution was suitable to the sheer stagecraft of the pageantry but vastly inferior to the Bard’s merry mockery.)

Cedric Berry (Ron, The Fairy King), Alexandra Martinez (Dancer/Helena) and Kimberly E. Jones (Tanya, The Fairy Queen) Cast of The Fairy Queen

Rather than build a Purcell remount on an audience’s comforting familiarity with Dream to provide what’s missing between selections, Andreas Mitisek’s star-crossed remount transforms Fairy-Queen into The Fairy Queen, a contemporary freak show, a frenetic, overwrought and sadly trivial embarrassment. We get a doggedly modern makeover, a miserable mashup of Sin City silliness and baroque grandeur that utterly undermines the dignity, elegance and depth of Purcell’s inspiration.

Ryan Belongie (Lysander) and Alexandra Martinez (Dancer/Helena) Alexandra Martinez (Dancer/Helena) and Ryan Belongie (Lysander)

Playing on throwback instruments, the 18-member Haymarket Opera Orchestra, conducted by Jory Vinikour and joined by an impeccably talented 15-member cast, produce the right sounds: It’s the sights that turn the newly restored historic Studebaker Theater into the echo chamber of a chat room, 150 minutes of jerky juxtapositions in an anachronistic hodgepodge.

Ryan Belongie (Lysander) and Darryl Taylor (Herman) Kimberly E. Jones (Tanya, The Fairy Queen)

It’s not just a purists’ nightmare—venturesome rethinking can produce creative updates—but a travesty that sinks both sides. Smarmy and stupid, the contrived storyline makes the music—the reason we’re here–feel maddeningly slow and stultifyingly serious. And, if the music feels like a buzz-kill, the perfectly preserved lyrics, stripped of their origins in the masques, make no sense out of context—whether in English or Klingon. Awkward with forced sight gags and torpid longueurs, F.Q. amounts to operatic schizophrenia, sans any mad scene to justify these “mistakes of a night.”

Marc Molomot (Puck) and Kimberly E. Jones (Tanya, The Fairy Queen) Marc Molomot (Puck) and Cedric Berry (Ron, The Fairy King)

The setting, elaborate but inert in Mitisek’s chromium-plated stage design, is a birthday fete at Las Vegas’s Club Puck, where the fairy king and queen, now Ron (Cedric Berry) and Tanya (Kimberly E. Jones), feud over his dalliances with a hooch dancer from the Strip. Club owner and lounge lizard Puck (Marc Molomot) messes up matters by spreading a potion-like, cactus-flower juice over the wrong lovers. So a stereotypically nelly gay couple (countertenors Ryan Belongie and Scott Brunscheen) get entangled with quarrelling straight newlyweds (Alexandra Martinez and Darryl Taylor), resulting in torrid lap dances, clumsy choreography, sexual-orientation disruption, and slapstick folderol, even including a delivery drone. Observing all and jotting it down for a future comedy is a potted poet named, of course, Shakes (Roberto Gomez), absolutely no relation to the Swan of Avon.

Cedric Berry (Ron, The Fairy King) and Marc Molomot (Puck)In effect, the staging and the score duke it out. Both get knocked out.

No question, even royal masques could be raucous, even crude, spectacles by modern standards. Perhaps that’s the motive for not trusting the text in this 2016 dumbdown. It’s a culture clash in the worst way.

But there’s no disputing the strangely faithful singing by a polished ensemble (though they’re drowned out by the sound of Purcell rolling in his grave). If the master’s splendid composition were heard more often or there were two other Fairy-Queens in town, it would be easy to condemn and quarantine this blast from the future. But aficionados can always close their eyes and pretend they’re back in the Queen’s Theatre, Dorset Garden, on May 2, 1692 and the United Company are doing Shakespeare and themselves very proud.

If only everything old were new again.

Kimberly E. Jones (Tanya, The Fairy Queen) and Cedric Berry (Ron, The Fairy King) Alexandra Martinez (Dancer/Helena) and Cedric Berry (Ron, The Fairy King)

Scott Brunscheen (Demetrius)photos by Liz Lauren

The Fairy Queen
Chicago Opera Theater
Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan Ave.
ends on November 13, 2016
for tickets, call 312.704.8414 or visit COT

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Roy Johnson November 13, 2016 at 1:42 pm

Dear Mr. Bommer: Your review was absolutely spot on. We actually went to hear the orchestra – more specifically, the principal trumpeter, a former student – and, in that regard, were more than impressed. The orchestra and cast members were superb, musically, but their talents were wasted on a production that could only be described as absurd. I totally agree that if the audience simply closed their eyes during the show – and the speaking lines were tossed – the production would have been improved immensely. Which, in fact, is what WE did.


Lawrence Bommer November 14, 2016 at 4:42 pm

Glad to hear it. You do rich justice to the sounds they honored. But the sense was missing in action.


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