IN Series reinvents ‘A Fairy Queen’ like an old-fashioned radio show
“Everything will be fine, and all kinds of things will be fine. “- Julien from Norwich included in A fairy queen
“The same elements that make magic possible also make it dangerous. “- A fairy queen
On the one hand, for some, this pandemic combined with the world’s seemingly inevitable drift towards fascism, oligarchy and climate collapse has sparked despair. On the other hand, as IN Series Artistic Director Timothy Nelson points out in his address to the audience, “At that liminal moment of insight, here we are, gazing at a new dawn, and looking up to see a greater possibility where we had previously perceived nothing. “
And so, the production of A fairy queen which had been slated as a live performance for fall 2020, in the face of pandemic shutdowns, has been reinvented as the world’s first opera podcast. For the current production, it has been reworked once again to evoke the experience of attending a live recording session of an old radio show, with live sound effects.
I invited my friend, performer and visual artist Wayson Jones to see this performance with me. I’m glad I did. He is someone who is used to engaging in the unexpected. And the unexpected became the action of the IN series in the trade. While I often respond to IN Series work with a sort of formless enthusiasm, Wayson channels what he sees in reshaping his own art. We saw the dancer-choreographer Akram Kahn perform his piece from “the end of the world”, Xenos, a few weeks ago, and I thought Wayson might like the IN Series way. Wayson performed regularly with the icon of now-deceased black gay poet Essex Hemphill, shaping poems into performance art that would be underscored by his keyboard work. He is now focusing on his visual art. When I asked him what I had to be sure to include in this review, he mentioned four things: the format of the radio program, the entire company as an Ensemble, countertenor Benjamin Williamson and the soprano Claron McFadden.
First, centered on the music of Henry Purcell and Shakespeare A Midsummer Night’s dream, this show is A fairy queen, not The queen of the fairies. The title change reflects the fact that in the 17th century, when this work was originally produced, it was common practice to co-opt older popular pieces and combine them with music into a new product. and marketable. In today’s parlance, would we call this “sampling”? In any case, that’s also how this production was put together. Looking at what was going on on stage, especially in the early stages, Wayson called it a “mashup,” a term and practice that 21st century artists readily recognize.
The live radio program format. Placing this story in a radio studio goes hand in hand with 17th-century versions of sampling, remixing, and mashup practices. And in Nelson’s knowledgeable hands, it presents itself not as a gadget but as a doorway to discovering the connections between human emotion and experience in two different eras. Who knew that lust and wickedness in 17th century Europe weren’t just academic? Audience Alleluias sung by Lucy Page with unmistakable orgasmic intention made me wonder “How long has this been going on?” and how much have I missed when I meet these older works?
The show begins with the participants waiting for their signals to begin. In the meantime, they find themselves in various affinity groups to discuss, like office workers around a water fountain. (We see instrumentalists, singer-actors, sound technicians making last-minute adjustments with relevant performers.) We see a company of professional performers, some barefoot, others in socks, in pre-mode. performance. They are called to come together by the talkative, sexy, playful, molasses-voiced narrator (John TK Scherch), whose tendency to say more than necessary is contained by the insistent “Shhh!” spoken by the first official character to speak, actor / spirit Puck (Enrico Lagasca). It is a statement that calms the actors as well as the audience and draws us all into a sacred space. And that ultimately becomes a central theme of this production. After Puck’s speech, introductions to the audience and an explanation of how things are going to turn out begin. But instead of being given frankly, the words of the speakers overlap and intermingle in a sort of verbal fugue.
There is an “On Air” sign that lights up, alerting the audience and performers to the silence before the show. Live sound effects are in full view. Audience “Applause” and “Silence” cards are presented to guide audience reaction at critical times. The performers are seated in folding chairs and walk up to the microphones when it is their turn to speak or sing. The orchestra is also visible to the public. Every part of the space has some kind of performance taking place in it. There is a lot to see as in a circus. Like a circus, it’s fun for both the audience and the performers who clearly had fun. And while you can see so much, there are still some surprises.
Everyone in this show is a gorgeous singer and commendable actor. It is a gift to experience them in performance. There were times on this show that I didn’t expect.
Countertenor Benjamin Williamson. Maybe it’s just not possible for a countertenor not to stand out in one way or another. Yet like Oberon, Benjamin Williamson stands out in the best possible way. His Oberon is focused, attentive and responsive, displaying a deeply engaged, high-stakes emotion that is always on the cusp of something big in combination with a seemingly contradictory combination of manhood, sensitivity and arrogance. If it isn’t Oberon, I don’t know what it is. Throughout the story, Williamson’s voice is unmistakably present and encouraging, but not intrusive. But it was his interpretation of “Music for a while” that blew the audience away. It was a true collaborative performance in which this 17th century European music was revealed 20e century of American jazz or turned into something very similar to jazz. The cellist (Wheeler Jarvis) turned Purcell’s musical terrain into a solid walking bassline in tandem with a piano playing (Emily Baltzer) that reminded me of John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet. I stomped, swayed, and nodded.
Soprano Claron McFadden. One of the surprises of this circus of a production is the entry of soprano Claron McFadden. At one point, someone on stage asks the audience to help them with a game. We hear a voice in the darkness of the auditorium shouting, “Did you mean me? ” “Yes!” McFadden happily raises his voice in a series of flawless baroque trills and tracks performed playfully and effortlessly. Hers is a soft, flexible instrument that was the highlight of an evening with an abundance of wonderful vocals. It is noteworthy that McFadden will sing the music of Nina Simone in the production of Toni Morrison Desdemona that IN Series will be producing later this season. It is an experience that I will not miss.
All. This production offered several opportunities for duos, trios, quartets and the ensemble to sing together. When, in these small group configurations, the performers were not soloists who simply sang at the same time. The vocals were technically “balanced”. But more than that, the singers were in conversation with each other and responded to each other in whatever permutation they found themselves in. The voices were sensually interactive. We didn’t just listen to the music being projected in the room. We were also able to experience the music that came and went between the singers, with tenderness and respect for one another and for the material.
And this last issue! The show ends with Shh, no more during which the audience seemed to hold their collective breath. Maybe this moment was more than the end of the show. The narrator suggests that they end with an epilogue, but the entire cast opposes it. And Puck once again advises our narrator to “Shhh! It was as if this song recognized the anxieties present in the audience and called on us, encouraged us, to use our inner resources to calm the voices of panic and despair in our heads (“Shut up, all of you! No noise! No noise!) and come back (“Softly, softly fly from here!” “) to our sexuality, our sensuality, our colleagues, our families, our beauty, our laughter and our joy. And our hope.
Duration: Around 2h30 with a 15-minute intermission.
A FAIRY QUEEN
After Shakespeare A Midsummer Night’s dream
Music by Henry Purcell
Designed and directed by Timothy Nelson
Peter Quince / Fairy: Sara Couden
Bottom / Demetrius: Marc Callahan
Puck / Robin Starveling: Enrico Lagasca
Snug / Helena: Sylvia Leith
Titania: Lucy Page
Muzzle / Lysander: Aaron Sheehan
Oberon: Benjamin Williamson
Flute / Hermia: Melissa Wimbish
Trumpet: Claron McFadden
Fairy ensemble: Rachel Evangeline Barham, Andrew Sauvageau, James Rogers
Piano: Emily Baltzer
Cello: Wheeler Jarvis
Harpsichord / organ: Timothy Nelson
Violin: Jeffrey Thurston
Cello: Maxfield Wollam-Poisson:
Music Manager: Emily Baltzer
Lighting designer: Paul Callahan
Sound Effects Artist: Jill Ahrold Bailey
Stage manager: Joe Gladstone
Associate artistic producer: Corinne Hayes
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