IRIS, TSC Put New Twist on Old ‘Dream’

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Daily News

Arts organizations will collaborate to produce a joint production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in a format never before seen in the Mid-South.

Johnny Lee Davenport (Oberon) and Slade Kyle (Puck) return from Tennessee Shakespeare Co.’s 2009 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” (Photo: Don Putnam)

No, not the world premiere of Michael Ching’s opera venture with Opera Memphis, Playhouse on the Square and the a capella orchestra made up of Delta Capella and RIVA members.

This time, the IRIS Orchestra and Tennessee Shakespeare Co. have teamed up for an even more unusual framing of Shakespeare’s classic tale of lovers, fairies and laborers, promising to strike a chord with musical and theatrical audiences alike.

“Sunrise, Spring, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will take the stage Saturday, Feb. 26, at 8 p.m. at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre, 1801 Exeter Road.

“Lots of people have been inspired by the magic and fantasy elements of ‘A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream’ and rather than just doing a concert piece, I had the idea that we should have some kind of drama and action,” said Michael Stern, musical director of IRIS.

IRIS has made a name for itself playing contemporary orchestral pieces, many of which were commissioned by the orchestra itself. But in this case, Stern and TSC artistic director Dan McCleary have adapted portions of Shakespeare’s text to a musical composition by composer Michael Gandolfi titled “Themes from a Midsummer Night.”

The piece, interwoven with scenes performed by six TSC actors and occasionally by orchestra members as well, will fill the second half of the program.

“It will be sort of like a Grecian musical without vocalists,” McCleary said. “Sometimes the music will underscore the text of a scene. Sometimes we will have scenes only. Sometimes we’ll have music only. There will always be something seamlessly going on. It’s all integrated.”

Putting the piece together – they’ve been working on it since November 2009 – was right up McCleary’s alley. Shakespeare, he pointed out, loved having live music on stage in his productions and McCleary has followed suit enlisting the help of some of Memphis’ best known musicians to play in TSC performances.

In this case, both the text and the music will costar as equals.

“That’s how it was 400 years ago and (live music) charges the actors and the audience in a different way as opposed to having recorded music,” McCleary said. “Live music is so important. It informs us in a whole other way.”

McCleary was working for Shakespeare & Co. in Massachusetts in the late 1990s when that company did a similar performance with Gandolfi’s music and the Boston Pops Orchestra. Because the play is long and complicated, scenes focus on the “dream” when two pairs of lovers become pawns of feuding fairies Titania and Oberon.

A chamber orchestra of fewer than 20 musicians will be set amid platforms where the actors perform, at times intermingling with them in full costume and makeup. Even Stern himself will take the role of Peter Quince, the leader of the “mechanicals,” a group of workers trying to rehearse a play. It might sound like a lot to take in, but the performance’s directors say it’s worth it.

The concert will open with Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll.” Following that is Aaron Copland’s ballet “Appalachian Spring,” which was originally written as a chamber piece. The full orchestra version was adapted later and became one of Copland’s most recognizable works after “Rodeo.” Then the real fun begins.

“Even though TSC is a guest artist, we wanted to find an aesthetically-pleasing marriage between the text and the composition, between the actor and musician, between the director and conductor,” McCleary said.

“I’ve long admired Dan McCleary,” Stern said. “I love what he’s doing with TSC and I generally like the marriage of words and music.”