It’s been more than a decade since Milwaukeeans indulged in Bruce Wells’ sumptuous, Shakespearean ballet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Originally choreographed in 1986 for the Boston Ballet, the whimsical tale of mortals and mischievous fairies opened the Milwaukee Ballet’s season in 1996, and was last performed in 2008.
Though the trappings of this ballet are relatively simple – compare the stagecraft technology of the ‘80s to that of artistic director Michael Pink’s more recent creations for his company, like Beauty and the Beast or La Boheme, for example – the magical, watercolor fairyland built by scenic designer Lewis Folden and lighting designer David Grill, plus shimmery, Shakespearean costumes by Edward Baker have withstood the test of time.
You needn’t be an expert of The Bard to follow along with the shenanigans of this multilayered story, although reading the program synopsis doesn’t hurt if you’re unfamiliar with the play. The short version goes like this: Hermia and Lysander are in love. Demetrius likes Hermia, and Helena likes Demetrius. (If you’re having trouble telling them apart, Hermia and Lysander are in the red costumes; Helena and Demetrius wear purple.)
A band of fairies ruled by the mythical couple of Oberon and Titania live in the aforementioned forest glade, where the mortals have fled to work out their love quadrangle. Puck, a spritely, if somewhat bumbling fawn, has been charged with settling a quarrel between Oberon and Titania, but Puck bungles the task and hilarity ensues.
Dancer Barry Molina is perfectly cast as Puck, with physical comedy chops as extraordinary as his dancing. Wearing little more than a dance belt and tiny horns, he flits about the stage, popping up in trees and behind rocks and then suddenly breaking into virtuosic dancing. The four mortals – who on Friday featured Marize Fumero as Hermia, Davit Hovhannisyan at Lysander, Alana Griffith as Helena and Patrick Howell as Demetrius – also negotiate tough choreography and laugh-out-loud antics, particularly in Act 2 as Puck and Oberon make even more trouble as they try to undo Puck’s mistakes.
An aside to the plot involves a crew of portly Rustics who happen upon all this chaos while staging a play in the forest. Among them is the character Bottom, a weaver/amateur actor portrayed by Timothy O’Donnell (Howell fills the role in the matinees). Bottom gets caught up in it all, and, transformed into a Donkey, is courted by a spell-bound Titania in the most comedic tangle of the night.
As Felix Mendelssohn’s recognizable wedding march swells – you didn’t know that’s where that came from, did you? – I don’t think I’m spoiling the fun by mentioning that they all live happily ever after. But for me, it’s what happens after the wedding scene that makes this ballet so special. Mendelssohn’s nocturne is among the most divine of all his compositions (admittedly, as a former horn player, I might be biased). It is here that the bubbling laughter in your gut moves upward to charm your heart as the ballet settles into a beautiful pas de deux for Titania and Oberon, danced Friday by Annia Hidalgo and Randy Crespo.
Crespo was hot and cold that night, particularly in the closest thing this ballet has to a variation. Oberon dances difficult passages of jumps and turns surrounded by an air-tight men’s corps: Parker Brasser-Vos, Josiah Cook, Erik Johnson, Isaac Sharratt, Ransom Wilkes-Davis and Diego Garcia-Castillo. (By the way, this weekend marked the final performances for Johnson and Sharratt, who’ve spent a combined 17 years with Milwaukee Ballet. O’Donnell is also retiring to become ballet master with Milwaukee Ballet II.) But when Crespo was on, he was spot on, and as the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra’s horns sang in the nocturne, I’d venture to say the couple was almost perfect.
It’s Puck who takes the night, however, ending the ballet center stage with lightning quick a la second pirouettes as the evening’s tiniest fairies and fawns – adorable students from the Milwaukee Ballet School – swirl lighted bulbs in the twilight like twinkling fireflies on a summer night.
At the last performance of the season, it would be natural for a ballet company to look tired and burned out, but the Milwaukee Ballet appears to be more energetic than ever, barreling toward a full summer which includes Ballet Beat, a series of free pop-up performances throughout Greater Milwaukee; moving offices and studios into the brand-new Baumgartner Center for Dance; and prepping for the launch of the company’s 50th anniversary season.