Chicago Opera Theater's 'The Fairy Queen'

by Christine Malcom

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday November 14, 2016

Chicago Opera Theater's 'The Fairy Queen'

The score to Henry Purcell's "The Fairy Queen" was lost shortly after the composer's death until the early twentieth century. Decidedly in the twenty-first century, Chicago Opera Theater's modernization, developed in collaboration with California-based performance troupe, Culture Clash, considerably condenses and refocuses the Restoration semi-opera on Shakespeare's text. What results is bold and entertaining on the whole, though the adaptation doesn't entirely overcome the clunky conventions of the Baroque style.

True to the tradition of the Restoration Spectacular's emphasis on the visual, Stage Director/Production Designer Andreas Mitisek transforms the stage of the newly restored Studebaker Theater into the sleek and sleazy Club FQ. The bar with its fuzzy stools sits downstage right. Downstage left is a sprawling, white pleather sectional sofa with a thick shag carpet on the floor in front of it.

These flank a short staircase bookended by metal scaffolding and mask the rest of the upstage area, also populated by steel scaffolding supporting a riff on the iconic "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign. To offer a hint of the forest, Mitisek's design masks the larger "lounge" downstage left and uses a gobo to project a tangle of branches onto the curtain. Combined with smaller, more delicate furniture pieces, this becomes Titania's intimate domain.

There's no credited costume designer, but from Tanya's animal print sheath dresses to newlywed Herman's rainbow, light-up high-tops, the characters' clothes and accessories are wonderfully over-the-top and well-suited to the Sin City setting.

Dan Weingarten's lighting design (Lighting Direction by David Lee Bradke) effectively counterbalances the loud neon of the set and costumes. It also effectively brings most of the Studebaker into the equation. Shakes, the drunken poet, first appears in the boxes above house right. The cast makes free use of the theater aisles, and late in the second half, a drone rises out of the boxes at house left to deliver Puck the antidote. At every turn, Weingarten's design draws the audience further into the world of the opera.

Although the production's visuals are bold and playful, the design doesn't fully account for the space. Most of the action is pushed forward to the apron and only slightly upstage of the proscenium, but the spoken dialogue is often lost to the cavern of exposed brick surrounding the constructed stage. Similarly, the narrow access to the main level, via the short staircase, slows entrances and exits via the upstage level, dragging on the pace of an already challenging show.

Regarding the way the adaptation shapes the narrative, many of the updates are refreshing and welcome. Turning Oberon and Titania into Ron and Tanya, for example, affords the opportunity to showcase two incredible singers of color. Similarly, the newlyweds, Herman and Lysander, are campy, but also genuine and adorable.

On the not-so-welcome side, Helena and Demetrius as the disengaged, overbearing scold and the henpecked boyfriend don't land nearly as well, nor does the staging of Shakes' "seduction" of Puck under the influence of the love juice.

Musically, the period instruments of the Haymarket Opera Orchestra (Jory Vinikour conducting) fill the Studebaker to the rafters, and the production boasts some amazing voices. Kimberley E. Jones (Tanya) and Cedric Berry (Ron), are particularly arresting. Their powerful voices and compelling stage presence are supremely successful at navigating both the humor and pathos of the text.

On the humor, sweetness and light front, Roberto Gomez is so stumblingly comfortable as Shakes the poet that his resonant baritone comes as an additional welcome surprise. Countertenors Darryl Taylor (Herman) and Ryan Belongie (Lysander) blend beautifully, both vocally and comedically, and, as heavy-handed and tired as the "humor" of the Helena/Demetrius relationship is, tenor Scott Brunscheen absolutely nails the role, choreography, soaring music, and all.

As Helena, Alexandra Martinez is more than vocally up to the task, though she's rather at sea comedically. It's worth noting, though, that the female characters, with the exception of Tanya, seem to be more of an afterthought, as evidenced by the very awkward material for the hot Latina dancer who seduces Ron in the first act, kicking off the action. On a related note, and a more serious liability in the production, as Puck, Marc Malomot has a wonderful high-tenor voice, but the role's humor is questionable in concept and often awkward in its execution.

"The Fairy Queen" ran through November 13 at the Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan, Chicago. For information, visit

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.