Newberry Consort opens 30th season with delightful “stage jigs”

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Tim Sawyier – Chicago Classical Review

above – Steven Player performed in the Newberry Consort’s season-opening program Friday night at Ruggles Hall.

Friday night in Ruggles Hall the Newberry Library hosted the opening performance of its eponymous Consort’s 30th anniversary season. The program, entitled “The Clown: Kemp’s Jig,” compellingly explored late 16- and early 17-century stage jigs as part of the Library’s commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death this year.

A “stage jig” is not an isolated dance but a full musical tableau with singing, dancing, and acting all interwoven. Performances of such works—“skits” as artistic directors David Douglass and Ellen Hargis called them in their illuminating program note—often followed productions of Shakespeare’s plays, and the professional clowns of acting troupes were usually responsible for putting together these humorous palate cleansers.

William Kemp was one such clown who performed in Shakespeare’s company, and the evening opened with the Consort playing the tune Kemp’s Jig while taking the stage with the cast of singer-dancer-actors assembled for the evening. Headlining the latter group was guest Steven Player, an authority on Renaissance and baroque dance who created the program’s distinguished choreography. He took advantage of the new cabaret-seating arrangement in Ruggles Hall by circulating through the audience during this entrance, and also offered the first of his consistently engaging period dancing—here atop a chest on stage.

The performance entailed three complete jigs: Singing SimpkinFrauncis New Jig, and The Cheaters Cheated, all of which revolved around themes of infidelity and deception. For example, in Frauncis a farmer couple dupes a philandering nobleman into unintentionally sleeping with his actual wife in an early Figaro-esque drama. Sexual puns, conspicuous cross-dressing, and other forms of lowbrow humor abound in these works, and the cast pulled all this off with unselfconscious aplomb to hilarious effect.

Artistic director David Douglass was responsible for getting these jigs into a performable condition. They exist only as scripts in rhymed couplets, which occasionally offer hints as to the music that should accompany them, but often do not. Douglass brought his considerable historical acumen to bear in selecting period “tunes” to accompany the drama, and, as such tunes are just monophonic melodies, also arranged and orchestrated them for the performance. Douglass’ work here was most convincing as the attunement between music and action was superb throughout the night.

Player’s characters were often the conspicuous center of attention, and he brought terpsichorean flair, slapstick acting, and adept singing to his roles. Corey Shotwell’s graceful, inviting tenor and Jeffrey Strauss’ flexible baritone made for a stellar vocal pairing well suited to the chamber scale of the proceedings.

Co-artistic director Ellen Hargis displayed her reliably supple soprano, and her stage direction adeptly organized the sometimes chaotic drama. She collaborated with costume designer Meriem Bahri for set design, which made very efficient use of the limited space and props. Bahri’s costumes were elegant and comely, subtly enhancing the action without ever distracting from it.

Douglass led the accompanying all-string Consort from the violin. The intelligently selected accompanying tunes ran the expressive gamut from lachrymose to euphoric, and the ensemble deftly navigated the many musical moods. The group’s dedication to this repertoire was palpable and evinced why they have been so successful for three decades.

In addition to the three stage jigs the cast offered an “entr’acte” of dances that evoked William Kemp’s Nine Days Wonder, in which the clown supposedly danced his way from London to Norwich entertaining as he went. These were as captivating as the more extended jigs, brought to life by Player’s distinctive dancing and the refined playing from the instrumental ensemble.