BSO and Folger collaborate on unique staging of ‘Midsummer’


Marin Alsop conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra during a dress rehearsal. (Chris Lee)
May 27

At a first rehearsal, a veteran thespian like Marcus Kyd expects to get cued by a fellow actor, a stage manager or — worst case-scenario — a disgruntled director who expected him to arrive with his lines memorized. But Saturday afternoon’s rehearsal for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was not your normal first rehearsal. There, in the largest theater Kyd has every performed, he realized that his cues would also be coming from a formidable conductor and more than three dozen string players.

Kyd is one of seven actors who will be featured in this weekend’s production of Shakespeare’s comedy. It’s a production unlike anything he has done before. In collaboration with the Folger Theatre, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is producing a semi-staged version of Shakespeare’s comedy integrated with Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music for the play.

“We have to weave in and out of the orchestra, as if the musicians are our scene partners,” Kyd said during a break. He was already fatigued from practicing a myriad of entrances and exits. “You have to think of the instruments as other actors.”

The concert will be staged Thursday at Strathmore Music Center in North Bethesda, and Friday through Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore. Typically, when an orchestra performs “Midsummer,” it hires a celebrity to read selected lines from the play between movements. But conductor Marin Alsop wanted to do more. Expect elaborate costumes, evocative lighting and a chaise lounge carrying Titania (Linda Powell) to descend from the rafters.

“ ‘Midsummer’ works beautifully with just a single narrator,” Alsop said. “But having more then just one personality really adds a lot more dimension for the audience.”


Frank Britton. (Courtesy force/collision)

This is the first time in Alsop’s seven-year tenure at the BSO that she has undertaken a theatrical staging of this magnitude. She needed help, and through the Folger, looped in Edward Berkeley to direct. Four of the seven actors that Berkeley cast — Kyd, Katie deBuys, Kate Eastwood Norris and Cody Nickell — are Folger regulars, chosen for their ability to play multiple parts. Kyd, a self-professed Shakespeare junkie, will play Lysander, Flute and Peaseblossom. He’s drawing upon his experience not only from acting at the Folger, but producing “bootleg” Shakespeare with Taffety Punk Theater Company, a local troupe that annually puts on a Bard play with just one day-long rehearsal.

“I think that’s the reason I was game for (‘Midsummer’),” Kyd said. “I have familiarity with the material; All the actors do. But we were drawn to the uniqueness of this. It is going to be so much more than just doing the play, and I just wanted to be part of it.”

Surprising Canadian folk

Mendelssohn wrote his incidental music for “Midsummer” in 1843 and falls in the middle of a long line of composers fascinated by the Bard — from Shakespeare’s near contemporary Henry Purcell to Joby Talbot, a young Brit who just scored a new “Winter’s Tale” ballet. But many contemporary directors also integrate extant music into their stage productions, and none more voraciously than Ben Steinfeld, the music director of Fiasco Theatre. The New York-based theater company opens an eight-performance run of “Cymbeline” at the Folger Wednesday, and fans of Canadian folk music who come see the show are in for a surprise.

“Long Time Traveler,” a traditional American folk song recorded by the Winnipeg-based trio the Wailin’ Jennys, has been recast in “Cymbeline” as the ode sung at the title character’s fake funeral. Steinfeld wanted to capitalize on his actors’ a cappella skills, and originally planned to appropriate the tune. He ended up mashing up the lyrics of Shakespeare’s “Fear No More” with “Long Time Traveler,” and coaching the cast to replicate the Jennys’ trademark harmonies.

“I was casting about for a three-part song that would evoke a Appalachian funeral,” he said, “And I just love that Wailin’ Jennys record.”

“Cymbeline” has long been labeled a problem play. Among other challenges, it alternates settings and has characters cross oceans without transitions. By using music to evoke a sense of place — for example, the cast sings a madrigal to indicate a trip to Italy — Steinfeld hopes this production turns the challenges into strengths. “Shakespeare uses music in a very special way, and we never want to deny those opportunities,” Steinfeld said.

Rallying to help

Washington’s theater community awoke to the news Tuesday that a much-loved local actor was assaulted and robbed just hours earlier as he was looking for a taxi upon leaving Forum Theatre in Silver Spring.

Frank Britton underwent surgery on Tuesday at Holy Cross Hospital for broken cheekbones and other injuries sustained to his face in the beating. Forum’s director, Michael Dove, spoke to Britton in the morning and said he was in good spirits and expected to make a full recovery.

Britton has worked at area theaters and most recently portrayed the street beggar Hambone in Round House Theatre’s production of “Two Trains Running.” Monday night, Forum celebrated the opening of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.” Britton plays Pontius Pilate and attended a party with his castmates at the theater’s performance space, which is located next to the AFI cinema in Silver Spring. After leaving the party, Britton stopped at 7-Eleven and was heading to the taxi stand by the Silver Spring Metro Station when he was assaulted.

“They came out of nowhere,” Dove said Britton told him. “They took everything and ran away on foot.”

The robbery occurred at 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, said Lt. Tom Jordan, Montgomery police spokesman. A group of four to five males approached the victim, assaulted him and stole items, Jordan said. Police reported no arrests in the case as of Tuesday evening, and asked anyone with information to call detectives at 240-773-6800.

The theater planned Wednesday and Thursday shows to go on as scheduled, with another actor or Forum staff member reading Britton’s lines with script in hand. Beyond that, Dove wasn’t sure. “Frank was joking with his nurse about how she has to get him back onstage soon,” Dove said. An account on the Web site GoFundMe was established to help pay for Britton’s medical care, and as of Tuesday afternoon, $21,000 had been donated to the Frank Britton Recovery Fund.

Ritzel is a freelance writer. Dan Morse contributed to this report.

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