Fairies and frivolity

If you waited until the second weekend to catch Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you may be in luck. An extra week’s practice may be just enough time for them to pull it all together.

If you waited until the second weekend to catch Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you may be in luck. An extra week’s practice may be just enough time for them to pull it all together.

While Oregon Ballet Theatre (OBT) delivered the promised laughs and athletically impressive dance performances during the first weekend, the production lacked a cohesive, polished quality and felt like a dress rehearsal. Technical glitches and oddly sparse sets distracted from the lavish and accomplished work of the dancers.

The hour-long A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a classic Shakespearean comedy with music by Mendelssohn, was the third and longest installment of a program including music by Mozart and Schubert.

Christopher Stowell, OBT’s artistic director, choreographed the show and brought in Sandra Woodall, a 30-year veteran designer, for costumes and sets. The next performances will be this weekend, Oct. 19 and 20, at 7:30 p.m.

The story is a tale of two pairs of lovers–one well-suited and giddy, the other disconnected, with the male lusting after the woman from the first couple–and the misguided attempts of invisible fairies to right their situation. Stowell cleverly opens the production at a modern-day garden wedding of a third couple, where the participants choose to play-act the story to entertain one another.

Stowell’s idea works well and as the play progresses, the action retreats further and further into a sparsely represented forest backdrop. The newly married couple become the king and queen of fairies, and even the waiters are transformed into tango-dancing participants.

The dancers act the story as much as they dance it. Strong character performances are consistent throughout. Javier Ubell plays the charming Puck, a horned little fellow whose fine intentions bring about disastrous results. You cannot help but like the mischievously good-hearted faun, and Ubell dances the role nimbly.

Gavin Larsen portrays the scorned lover Helena, who repeatedly suffers the rejection of her ill-chosen partner Demetrius, played by the brooding Arthur Sultanov. Larsen’s innocence persists in puppy-like devotion while her beloved focuses his attention longingly on the other woman. Her comic portrayal is one of the gems in the performance, which is danced confidently and acted with earnest humor.

The other couple, Hermia and Lysander (played by Anne Mueller and Adrian Fry), epitomizes a youthful relationship: light and playful, they gently prod one another and are aware of nothing but themselves. The two turn out solid moves while clearly enjoying their roles.

Finally, the 13 children, played mostly by teenagers, are fitted with gauzy wings of bugs and corresponding antennae. The kids flap and circle to form a part of the scenery that is literally more alive than any other. The wisp of a boy cupid is played by impish Jamesmichael Sherman-Lewis, who perches like a pet on the shoulder of Puck, casting his love spells.

In a story so full of dramatic emotions, the sets are surprisingly sparse. A backdrop of smudgy, nighttime forest holds a hazy moon, and small cutouts of trees are rolled across the stage in different positions. Perhaps Stowell wanted eyes to focus on the dancers and their actions, which are very funny, while the miserly scenic elements weren’t intended to enhance the dancers’ performances.

Toward the end of the ballet, two obvious mistakes in stage production brought confused looks from many in the audience. The house lights came on at a transitional moment and remained on long enough for people to begin to realize the error.

Later, a misfit white curtain unfolded from the left side of the dark, muted set, solely, it seemed, to hide the entrance of a couch for the fairy queen to nap on. Backlit, the curtain revealed the silhouette of a stagehand, batting the end of the fabric with a broomlike stick.

Mendelssohn’s wistful score is light and fanciful, with strings sounding like buzzing bugs’ wings, and winds repeating the simple rich tones of a pan flute. Stowell is able to take the score and use it to fuel his story. The wedding guests line up to do the bunny-hop during the opening scenes of the wedding party, and the fairy queen dances a hysterically amusing tango with a man-turned-horse.

The program’s first brief piece, The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, choreographed by William Forsythe to the music of Schubert, is an exuberant gush of studied technique. Three women and two men, up-and-coming young dancers in the company, push their talents to the limit, executing lightning-quick turns and jumps with flawless precision. Smiling the whole time, the dancers can barely catch their breath between sequences.

The second piece is James Kudelka’s Almost Mozart, another short work accompanied by brief clips of Masonic music and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23. While creative and danced with great skill, its tension limited this piece’s ability to impress. Moving with hands tightly locked together in groups of two and three, the dancers moved mostly in silence, allowing the audience to hear them economizing on air. Clever three-person lifts amid tangled limbs were the highlight.

It appears that with four seasons behind him, the young Christopher Stowell is becoming increasingly ambitious, putting his technically talented group of dancers into more and more challenging works. With time and maturity, the level of polish and detail within the production could increase, yielding some spectacular results.