Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" layers comedy and confusion over the pain and wonder of love discovered, lost and found again: a deliciously lively play tempered with logistical and emotional complexity. The Richmond Ballet's production a the Landmark Theater, choreographed by William Soleau to the Mendelssohn score (performed by the Richmond Symphony, with members of the Richmond Symphony Chorus and soloists from Virginia Opera) brought the play to life with a sprightly grace that, while rich in comedy and charm, glanced lightly over the emotional havoc wrought by its characters' antics.
Soleau's choreography wove itself deeply into the fabric of Mendelssohn's music for a satisfying union of dance and sound. From the opening, when the fairies rushed the stage in great fluttering waves amidst the strings, to the stately closing strains of the royal celebrations at court, dancers and musicians worked in seamless harmony to tell the tale. In the midst of this, the spoken text of the play, read at intervals by Cynde Liffick and Grant Mudge, felt jarring at first. Blackouts -- with dancers paused onstage in the dark as the actors read -- increase the disjointedness. The spirit of Shakespeare's language, though always a pleasure to hear, can in fact be effectively conveyed through movement and music alone.
The casting of this production was perfect -- Kirk Henning handsome and imperious as Oberon; Maggie Small lovely and defiant as Titania; and of course Dana‰ Carter as an adorable, mischievous Puck. Cecile Tuzzi demonstrated impeccable comic timing as the lovelorn Helena, and Jesse Bechard was perfect as the bemused Bottom. His pas de deux (as donkey) with Titania was a pleasure to watch, playful and tender, as were Puck's frequent conferences with Oberon, often with Carter clinging to Henning's shoulders like a monkey.
Throughout the evening, I wished for more space around the moments of awakening -- the crux of a story about dreams. Each awakening to new love in the story must have been fraught with reverent, if baffled, passion, but in this production the awakenings slipped by without much pause for wonder, and the dance moved on.
My thanks to the folks who wrote in to clarify that the spoken text in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is an integral part of Mendelssohn's original score. In my review, I may have addressed this rather clumsily. Rather than dismiss outright the whole idea of including this text, I wanted to question the inclusion--or better, integration--of the spoken word, in the fashion used by this particular production, within the predominantly danced/sung structure. From what I have been able to discover, the oratorio was not written as a ballet score specifically--ballet productions came a little later. It stood on its own as a played/sung/spoken work, or perhaps as an accompaniment to productions of the play. In this ballet-focused production, the spoken word felt, to me, layered over the already communicative dancing--not integrated with it. So, each time the staged darkened and the amplified voices began, I felt jarred out of the magical visual and aural world created by the dancing, music, set and lighting. Taken as a whole, however, the production's charm was undeniable--the actors skilled, the music delicious, and the dancing exuberant.- Lea Marshall