The story of Dido’s tragic love for Aeneas, and of the way that he betrays her in obedience to the gods, has resonated with artists in diverse media ever since Virgil introduced it in his great Latin epic, The Aeneid. The spectacle of a passionate queen bewitched and then wronged in tandem with the classic “should I stay or should I go” conflict so typical of men at war allows for multiple approaches, ranging from the highly stylized music of Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas to Christopher Marlowe’s rhetorically savage drama Dido, Queen of Carthage.
Leave it to the ever-inventive John Blondell and his outstanding creative team and student cast to put these two versions of the Dido story together and present them on a single night under the general heading of “The Dido Project.” Blondell’s stated intent was to create versions of each that would leave viewers feeling that they belonged together, and he has succeeded. The charming, powerful performances of the singers, chorus, and orchestra in Dido and Aeneas, which plays first, leads to a terrific sense of excitement and release when this beautifully choreographed, consistently engaging production of the Marlowe play comes on later in the evening. Taken together, they present not only a fascinating and rounded view of what the Dido story meant to the artists of the English 16th and 17th centuries but also a celebration of the maturity and expressive vigor of this institution’s theater program. If there’s a more sophisticated, exuberant, and consistently groundbreaking theater program in another small liberal arts college in America, I’d like to see it.
Wendy Kent is splendid as Dido in the Purcell, and Christine Nathanson makes something joyous and special out of the clever songs Purcell wrote for Dido’s sister Belinda. Victoria Finlayson’s distinctive choreography renders the delicious choral music both more intelligible as drama and great fun to watch. When Nathanson reappears in Dido, Queen of Carthage wearing the crown, it’s clear from the outset that the audience is in for a treat. She casts a spell that draws in all those who surround her, from Aeneas (Connor Bush) to Iarbus (Merckx Dascomb) and beyond. The dazzling staging never threatens to knock Marlowe’s potent rhetoric off balance, and the play builds inexorably to a fine and wild climax.