Mom Theatre Blogger: A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Show Review by Jo Mispel

FaeriesWe made it to the beautiful old theater space that is the New Victory Theater on 42nd Street in Manhattan with just enough time to take hold of a kid’s booster seat. We were here to see the Isango Ensemble’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My niece, who is an accomplished actress and just the right age for this opera version of Shakespeare’s play (9+ is recommended), could not make it, so I took my willing sidekick and wonderful 5 year old son instead. Was not sure how that would go down. Opera and Shakespeare can be challenging at any age without a handle. I myself had only vague memories of this play’s storyline. Love spells and a donkey? But knowing this re-imagining of the Benjamin Britten 1960 opera version was musically supported with Marimbas and Djembes, I trusted we would be ok.

The actors of this South African ensemble were already on stage, relaxed and waiting for the show to begin. The set was simple and suggestive of a township probably much like those surrounding Cape Town where the majority of the group’s performers are from. The Isango Ensemble was founded in 2000 by Director Mark Dornford-May and Music Director Pauline Malefane. They have been re-contextualizing classic operas from the western canon as local stories with award winning success. Midsummer seems to work particularly well re-imagined this way not only because of its universal themes of love and acceptance but also thanks to the magic and enchantment elements transposing so seamlessly with local folklore. Apparently Puck is very similar to a mischievous South African spirit called The Tokoloshe. Mark also comments in his program notes that the ‘unnatural world order’ that the characters find themselves in resonates particularly with South Africans who remember Apartheid.

I thought this blurring of Shakespearean and South African characters such as the fairies and Puck was really magical. Puck played by Noluthando BoQwana was impish but tribal and her skirt was made of straw and wooden spoons that clacked deliciously as she leapt about causing trouble. The fairies, who came on in a raucous rush, danced with broomsticks which turn out to be a fascinating cultural crossover object with similar connotations and ritual meaning in both western and African mythology and culture.

All 25 members of the cast play instruments and sings so the music was a fluid collection of players who we get to observe. The musical score arranged by Mandisi Dyantyis, provides a mostly soft percussive accompaniment to the classic opera singing.

As to be somewhat expected when lovers and spells are being mixed and confuddled, the first half of the play did at times feel confusing. Especially as most of the opera is sung in a mix of South African Dialects including Zulu, Tswana and Xhosa. My son however enjoyed the almost slapstick physicality of the ‘mechanical’s, a group of working men planning a play for the marriage of the Duke and his Queen. Their caper provided intermittent light relief, as per a Shakespeare play. He also enjoyed the boisterous fairies but I think he missed the comedy of missed connections and misplaced enchantments. However the large tween/teen crowd, who have also no doubt studied the text, could certainly appreciate the troubled young lovers Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena played energetically by Mhlekazi Mosiea, Bongiwe Mapassa, Sifiso Lupuzi and Busisiwe Ngejane respectively.

Bottom, one of the Mechanicals, who will be turned into the Donkey, was played by Zamile Gantana and he was fantastic. He was mesmerizing as the hapless furry eared creature pursued with lust by Pauline Malefane as Tytania the bewitched fairy queen (who’s Soprano vocal range was impressive). He was comedic but nuanced. It was great physical theatre.

At interval we enjoyed a snack from the child friendly food bar and explored the play area set up downstairs that thematically explored the show with instruments and interactive games. I must say I was very impressed by my first experience of the New Victory Theater, they warmly cater for their kid audiences and there was helpful staff everywhere. I had been concerned that post break my sidekick would resist returning to his seat as I was sure that the plot was incomprehensible to him but he was very keen to go back for part two. I think the immediacy of the actors and beauty of the music was beguiling enough.

The second half was more energized – there were spells to be corrected and wedding parties to attend and the Mechanical’s play to be performed. He leant forward and engaged and asked questions. I queried my son later as to which part of the show was his favorite and he said ‘when everyone got married’

As a play whose conclusion is forgiveness after misunderstandings, communion after discord, the end is uplifting and invigorating. The cross cultural exchange felt fluid and celebratory and we all left the theatre feeling totally enchanted.

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