In Quill Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night or What You Will,’ boys will be boys (and sometimes girls)
Twelfth Night is surely the greatest of all Shakespearian comedies. His last true comedy before taking a hard turn towards the darker aspects of humanity, the zany spirit of “what you will” dominated him.
The plot devices are familiar: shipwrecked characters, separated twins, girls dressing like boys, men intoxicated by men who are really women, women falling for men who are really women. Drunks, patsies, puritans, devious maids and fools. Add the master’s brilliance of making them recognizable human beings and you have the magic of Twelfth Night.
The plot is complicated. Characters shift in and out of identities. Luckily we have expert decoders at the wheel. Quill Theatre has produced a spirited production at Agecroft Hall, helmed by Steve Perigard and assisted by the Mistress of Text, Molly Hood.
The production is easy to follow and the actors work very hard to create a rollicking comedy.
That’s a good thing and a not so good thing.
Quill Theatre’s production is heavy on the hijinks at the sacrifice of creating complex human characters. Comedy bits will always delight an audience, but Shakespeare provides much more.
Even though almost every character in this play is mad, it’s a mistake to think this is a farce. Like most of Shakespeare’s strongest plays, it has no genre. Shakespeare creates a wide berth to let these challenged people get in and out of disasters. He shows us the foibles of people being over-protective, stubborn, wrong and sometimes just stupid.
The main detraction is the decision to cast very good looking actors all under the age of 33 in every part, which is fine for the romantic story but senseless in the subplot. Every actor there looks like a leading man. No one wears makeup or sports a prosthesis. The thematic relevance of this choice is allusive. Certainly there are plenty of age appropriate actors in town. The choice ends up denying many of the characters the benefit or the burden of their past.
A short plot summary:
The Duke Orsino loves the Countess Olivia. He sends shipwrecked Viola (dressed as the boy Cesario) to woo Olivia for him even though the Duke has unexplained stirrings for this boy/girl. Olivia (who has been grieving for her dead father and brother) has her heart jump started by this beautiful boy/girl and is both titillated and frightened to love again. Viola/Cesario herself has been separated from her twin brother during the shipwreck.
At the estate of Lady Olivia, Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s drunken uncle, has brought in Sir Andrew Aguecheek to be her suitor, for which Toby is compensated in food and drink. A confrontation between Olivia’s steward, the Puritan Malvolio, and the partying Toby and his cohorts lead to a revenge plot against Malvolio. Malvolio is tricked into making a fool of himself, and he is locked in a dungeon as a lunatic.
As you might expect, Viola’s long lost twin brother shows up. Each is mistaken for the other before everyone is onstage at the same time to sort it all out. Because this is a comedy, marriage ensues, sometimes without much foreplay.
The subplot takes over the production as the foursome of Belch, Aguecheek, Fabian and Maria plot against Malvolio.
Belch is a chronic alcoholic but David Janosik is young, tall, dark haired and handsome, showing no signs of ravage or disease. He makes a rather dashing figure even when tipsy and sword fights like Zorro. Belch is anything but dashing. He is a sad character, dyspeptic with major health and personality disorders that compel him to act as he does, which is not always pleasant. By making Belch vibrant and joyous, we lose the depth and colors of the man. Janosik is a great comedian and gets every laugh he can but is slammed shut from creating a full bodied Belch.
Aguecheek is an alcoholic and a patsy to Belch’s lechery. Evan Nasteff is a young, healthy, handsome actor who shows no signs of being unable to attract a woman like Olivia. He should at the very least be uglier. Aguecheek is also is not so cheery. His very name implies that he is not well. He frets and worries, and becomes frustrated that he is unworthy of Olivia. There must be a reason that he plays patsy to Belch. Nasteff finds the sad puppy dog sycophant aspects of Aguecheek and is delightful at that. All he needs is some warts on his face and in his character.
Fabian is a mystery to me. He comes out of nowhere. I have no idea who he is. But played by young, healthy and handsome Jonathan Conyers, he completes the three musketeer trio who play pranks on the stodgy and puritanical Malvolio.
Even Maria, played by Elizabeth Ashby shows no physical signs of distemper to justify her maliciousness. Her motivational history is vague because she too is young and pretty.
The foursome reminded me of frat boys playing tricks on a pledge to their fraternity turning the subplot of the character driven comedy into Animal House.
Liz Blake-White makes a wonderful Olivia. Perhaps a tad less protective of her swelling emotions than would be ideal, she nevertheless gives a full bodied, complex performance. Looking stunning in the luscious outfits designed for her by Anna Bialkowski and the knock out hairdo created by Jackie Cook, she finds the delicate nuances of giving in to passion as well as the hilarious misunderstandings that ensue.
Actress Lauren Rocklyn doesn’t help us solve the mysteries of Viola. She has a great Shakespearian voice and lovely diction but plays Viola without any intricacies or passion. We are not clear why she falls for Orsino, we are not clear why she talks so beautifully of love to Olivia, with whom she is not in love. It is hard to get a fix on her motives throughout.
As Cesario, Rocklyn looks very little like her brother Sebastain (played a little too safely by Mark Caudle).
Malvolio, along with the Fool Feste, are Shakespeare’s greatest creations in Twelfth Night.
Malvolio usurps this play and makes it his own, much like Shylock steals the Merchant of Venice. Malvolio is a prim, proper puritanical killjoy from the tight ass school of Stewardship. He is also self-centered, narcissistic and more than a little in love with Olivia. He is more the victim of his own psychic propensities than a tragic figure. His treatment, however, is an enigma. We question why Shakespeare treats him so cruelly, way out of proportion to his merits. There is an excess to this role, especially enigmatic after he reads Maria’s forged note.
Thomas Cunningham is saved from being the 5th frat boy because, although young, he reads much older, as most character actors do. He has a fine command of the language but his portrayal feels too controlled at times. Like he is sucking a lemon or is kiegeling constantly.
Cunningham does cut loose in Malvolio’s big scene where he reads a forged note supposedly from Olivia protesting love for him. His passion for his own prowess is creepy and splendid.
The genius of Twelfth Night is Feste, the most charming of all Shakespeare’s fools, and the only sane character in the play. Feste is generally an older fool, handed down from Olivia’s father and is weary and wise. He supplies an air of knowingness and earthiness to the mad proceedings. He is perhaps a rare Shakespeare surrogate, warning us not to seek moral coherence to the story.
Against type, Luke Shares plays Feste as a Puckish figure throwing wrenches into other people’s scenarios. The world weary wisdom of the character is sacrificed for a comic version full of mischievousness and sarcasm. His Feste is not dark in the least. Shares throws the clown’s hat on. The interpretation is pleasant enough but misses the point. Feste is not a clown, he is the conscience of the play. Mr. Shares is a very likeable and skilled actor. Being more a participant and less an observer denies much of Feste’s natural rapport with the audience which is sorely missed.
Mr. Perigard sets the play in the early 20th century, the 20’s or the 30’s which is fine. The script is malleable enough to be staged in any time period.
Perigard stages the evening nimbly but resorts as most directors do at Agecroft to placing action and actors in the aisles when too many people appear. Characters also distractingly move set pieces during scenes.
I did especially enjoy his staging of the three comedians watching Malvolio read the forged letter. Some fine gymnastics and sturdy coordination. He keeps the pace brisk. If anything the play could withstand a brisker pace.
The set design is curious in that it is basically non-existent. Two pipe structures painted black with muslin coverings as dividers. Quill saves budget on set design by being in a perfect setting.
The costumes were a mixed bag. Ms. Blake’s outfits were wonderful. Mr. Cunningham’s tuxedo at the top of the play very smart. The Duke’s suits very attractive. Most of the other men were blandly dressed in outfits that gave no help to their character.
Ms. Rocklyn’s male outfit lacked creativity. It leaned towards the non-descript male rather than something more ambiguous which would have played better with the alternating sexuality of the character.
BJ Wilkinson’s lighting was very smart, as always. The music by Annie Leeth was delightful.
Twelfth Night is one of the most produced of Shakespeare’s plays. Its themes are universal and its characters easily recognized. The decision to cast young actors in these iconic roles had no thematic justification. We accept such casting in college productions, but Quill has no such limitations.
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