Such Sweet Thunder

Shakespeare and Purcell enchant the Lynden Sculpture Garden.

For one of the vignettes that is part of the Fairy Queen Fantasy—performed this weekend by Danceworks Performance Company and Milwaukee Opera Theatre–the audience stops at a clearing in the Lynden Sculpture Garden, and hears four short songs devoted to the four seasons. In Henry Purcell’s original 1692 opera, the suite is a tribute to the King of the Fairies, Oberon, on his birthday. And here, divorced from the narrative of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the songs become an even more poignant meditation on the fleet passage of time and mortality itself.

Tami Workentin and Norman Moses Photo by Eddee Daniel
Tami Workentin and Norman Moses. Photo by Eddee Daniel. 

“Thus the ever Grateful Spring” and “Here’s the Summer, Sprightly, Gay” feature a bevy of fairy sprite children—aided by members of the DPC. But for “Now Winter Comes Slowly,” the mood changes appropriately. As Bob Balderson sings of winter coming “Slowly, Pale, Meager, and Old,” ten of the most mature dancers (the oldest is 77) dance a stately minuet as the sun sinks lower in the summer sky.

It’s a beautiful, resonant scene, and one of many to be found in this ambitious production, which had two performances this weekend. Although this scene suggests a somber occasion, this is as pure a celebration as one can imagine: to music, nature, community, and…sure, I’ll go Tevye on you: To Life.

Alberto Cambra Photo by Eddee Daniel
Alberto Cambra. Photo by Eddee Daniel.

The creators—Jill Anna Ponasik, Dani Kuepper and James Zager—call this a “fantasy” because it riffs on the themes of Purcell’s opera (and the Shakespeare source material) rather than tell its story. The crowd begins outside the Lynden pavilion, and after a few instrumentals, and an invocation by Oberon (Norman Moses) and Titania (Tami Workentin), is sent on its way with the song “Come let us leave the town.” And they do, circling the Lynden Garden pond for nine scenes from the opera, each invoking the joys and tribulations of love and loss in dance and music.

Dancer Alberto Cambra wasn’t identified as Puck in the program, but he certainly played the part, a flirtatious and nimble spark of pure libido. The darker side of romance was represented, as well. “If Love’s a Sweet Passion” found Christal Wagner and the ensemble in a deep meditative state—which included literal chest-beating and hand gestures that suggested the malleability of emotions–reflecting on both the sorrows and pleasures of romance.

Kim Johnson Photo by Eddee Daniel
Kim Johnson. Photo by Eddee Daniel.

In “O let me weep,” Kim Johnson’s solo performance treats the lyrics like a martial order, defending her grieving solitude like a warrior, but eventually allowing her a peaceful moment in which to mourn her lost love.

Of course, it ends in a joyous celebration, befitting the comic tone of Shakespeare’s play. And throughout, MOT soloists and the roving instrumental ensemble did fine justice to Purcell’s music. Singers Ami Bouterse, Matthew Richardson and Ruth Brown deserve special mention for capturing the clarity of Purcell’s melodies. And Joseph Riggenbach deserves a “utility man” award for playing mandolin, trombone and recorder, in addition to his vocal solos.

Even with the dozens of artists from all walks of the Milwaukee arts community, this Fairy Queen was much more than the sum of its parts. An ambitious and fitting cap to the 2014-15 arts season, it was also a celebration of creativity and chutzpah.

A reminder—in times of increasing scarcity for the arts—of the riches to be wrought from imagination, talent and determination.



Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.