A Midsummer Night’s Dream is good material for an actor’s workshop, with its drama of ego and infighting in the subplot of the amateur stage play. When performed in the guise of Britten’s opera, without surtitles and in the speakeasy-inflected Mayne Stage hall, it is a great opportunity for young professional singers to work on projecting operatic narrative. When your audience is stuffing half-pound burgers into their mouths and crinkling newspaper-wrapped fries, diction and the communication of clear feeling become bigger challenges than usual.

Patrick Terry (Oberon) and Mizuho Takeshita (Tytania) © Daniel Johanson
Patrick Terry (Oberon) and Mizuho Takeshita (Tytania)
© Daniel Johanson

Such were the conditions facing the game and talented singers in the Chicago Summer Opera’s production this Monday night. The company, which functions essentially as a workshop for musicians on the rise (my guest and I felt like the only ones who didn’t know someone in the show), also staged Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Menotti’s The Medium this summer at Edgebrook Lutheran Church, where presumably one could not have ordered whisky. At the Mayne Stage, the company made good use of the wraparound seating; in lieu of any kind of set, the reduced orchestra was placed on the floor in such a way that stage space was made both behind and in front, thereby allowing for a visual transition from the rehearsals of Act I to the performance in the last act. At one point, Oberon came up into the rafters where I was seated, and I was grateful, for it allowed me to hear Patrick Terry’s exquisitely smooth and many-colored countertenor up close.

There is much vocal talent in this cast, including Mizuho Takeshita, who sang Tytania and who needs bigger halls, fast. But to prioritize music-making over the comprehensibility of dialogue and plot is nearly a mistake for this kind of occasion, which already conceded the night’s connection to musical theatre in the excellent campiness of the actor’s troupe. It would have been a challenge, and not a less musical one, to strive to render comprehensible every complication and twist in the plot and to have the enunciation of words drive the ensemble’s expressive decisions. The orchestra was sometimes too loud, but some of the performers fared better than others. I understood, for example, every single word uttered by Jack Cotaling as Quince, who found a way to shape every syllable dramatically and with purpose.

The declamatory articulation of the comic troupe was better suited to clarity than the drawn-out lines more often written for the "serious" cast. Here, more could have been done by the director Rod Gomez to bring out the eerieness prefigured by the opera’s opening string glissandi, which presage the fact that so much of the story takes place between worlds. The fairy quartet, lissome and obliging, moves among the patrons seated at bar tables on the floor, though this element of audience intrusion is entirely denuded of charge. Maybe it’s because they’re costumed in drama school black with a monotone scarf (for color!), thus rendering them digestible as arty movement/dance types. Plus their pleasing femininity feels utterly safe; a much more uncomfortable direction would have been, say, to have the fairies hold eye contact with members of the audience as they moved in their midst. Such a move would acknowledge at the very least the privilege of their being on the floor while enjoying the safety of voyeurism. It would also do better justice to the strangeness and disturbance of Britten’s score, along with providing a sharper tonal contrast to the comic antics of the men (the sweetly singing and dancing fairies too neatly complement male buffoonery).

The orchestra played ably, with some players standing out more than others. Conductor Codrut Birsan kept the ship tight; it was perhaps asking too much for a group that likely suffered for rehearsal time for more sharply drawn musical ideas and commitment to the last milisecond of each gesture. In the end, though, it was comic gesture that won the day, from Christine Roberts’ admirable physical commitment as Hermia to the acting troupe’s palpable charisma with the audience, this cast of young professionals seemed entirely at ease in this Dream's sometimes abstruse musico-mythical world, and made their surroundings work for them.

***11