Going to a live performance of Shakespeare is always a delightful event. Having a work by the greatest author in the history of our language delivered in the manner in which it was intended is, sadly, a rarer and rarer treat, especially outside of Shakespeare festivals. However, a theatre must truly know why they want to do the work. In these economic times, it is tempting to go to Shakespeare because the rights are free. In community theatres, it is tempting to do Shakespeare because there are so many roles, and many people can be involved. And these are excellent reasons to start to think about doing one of the Bard’s works. But the reasoning can’t stop there.
Chapel Street Players’ production of TWELFTH NIGHT, or WHAT YOU WILL, did not seem to have any clarity beyond this. I never knew why this play was being performed by this theatre at this time in this way. There is nothing wrong, and many things right, with non-traditional staging of Shakespeare. This production’s choice to set the play in the early 1900s seemed to this audience member to be a decision based on what costumes and props were already in stock. The purpose must go beyond that. With such excellent verse as the baseline for the play, any haphazard or half made decision is instantly apparent!
Short interlude for plot: Viola (Madi Houff) and Sebastian (Samuel Fuhrman), twins, are separated by a terrible storm and shipwreck. Both believe the other is dead but were miraculously rescued. Viola, our heroine, chooses to disguise herself as a boy and to serve the local count, Orsino (Timothy Sheridan). The melancholy count sends Viola to woo the Countess Olivia (Jennifer Wilson), in mourning for her (unseen) brother. Olivia rejects the love pleas of Orsino but manages to fall in love with Viola’s male alter-ego, Cessario. Meanwhile, Sebastian has befriended the sailor Antonio (Mike Herr) and is traveling to the court as well. Mean-meanwhile, Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby (Robert J. Touhey) engages in a merry prank with his cohorts against Olivia’s Steward, Malvolio (Vaughan Ellerton). Mistaken identity and love quadrangles abound in one of Shakespeare’s most delightful comedies. But back to this production…
One of the best decisions this production made was to have an original composer to put music to the songs in the script. So often the choice is made to replace the songs entirely with contemporary music, but the melodies are beautiful, especially when the full cast is singing. Though this leads to perhaps the most confusing casting decision of the production: Feste’s Assistant (Cathy Fichera). For those familiar with the play, this is an added character, seemingly added to sing all the shows songs instead of Feste (Alan Harbaugh). Feste and his Assistant were presented in this production as an old magician and his assistant, past their primes and slowing down, but continuing doggedly. The decision didn’t seem to add much to the production, though it did explain Ms. Fichera’s presence.
Stand outs in the cast include Mr. Ellerton as the snarly, uptight Malvolio, although he is denied one of the potentially greatest moments in the show when his transformation is not accompanied by a costume change; Ron Ozer as the hapless Sir Andrew Aguecheek; Ms. Wilson as the Countess Olivia. All three had an excellent command of the text and were enjoying themselves on stage. Ms. Houff is right on the edge of greatness in this production, if she would trust the audience to follow her journey without over-exaggerated facial expressions of discomfort as a default. Others made strong choices but denied the very nature of their characters as presented – Count Orsino is the essential melancholy lover (think Romeo longing for Rosalind) but was played with inexplicable giggles of joy, even as he begged for a glut of music to make him vomit out his excess of love.
Much of the humor in the 4th and 5th acts comes from Viola and Sebastian being mistaken for each other, which made the decision for Sebastian to have a beard particularly confusing. Though acknowledged by actors onstage, this seems to deny the essential nature of the play itself. Listening to audience members around me, I could hear much confusion in the seats around me. The program did not even identify them as twins – essential information!
When it gets right down to it, this production had the potential for greatness – an excellent script, a talented cast, good music. However, there seemed to be a profound fear in approaching the script – actors were much more worried about saying their lines correctly (important, but it shouldn’t be a worry on opening night) than finding the joy in the script, having fun onstage, and loving the performance. Indeed, the moments where actors settled down most were augmentations to the script, not the Shakespeare itself.
TWELFTH NIGHT or WHAT YOU WILL
By William Shakespeare
Music by Sean Kelly
Directed by Robert G. De Remigio
September 23-October 1, 2011
Chapel Street Players
27 N. Chapel Street