During the winter of 1995-1996, Michael Pennington was in residence in Chicago, directing Twelfth Night for Chicago Shakespeare Theater. He recounted his experiences in the conclusion of his book Twelfth Night: A User's Guide, an engaging and insightful scene-by-scene analysis of the play. Below are some of his reflections on our city and the production, beginning shortly before the show opened at our old home at the Ruth Page Theater:
"It is now so cold that a man with a frozen moustache is shown on the television news pouring water from a boiling kettle into the street—it freezes as it hits the ground. Technical fidgeting is punctuated by various homilies to the cast, cheering or corrective ... Remember the changes of scale—the moments when Shakespeare takes off like the Concorde from ordinary speech into supreme metaphor, and swiftly land again. In conclusion I carpet the cast for still being loose on the text and even a little smug about what we're offering, and am rewarded by a most generous speech of thanks, enunciated by Howard [Witt] and cheered by all. The air fills with the first sadness of separation: it seems they have even looked forward to the note sessions. I'm asked for last-minute warnings, but that's it. Breathe deeply, and no slow walking, please. Good luck to all.
Sitting in a remote corner of the building with Barbara Gaines and a bottomless bottle, I escape the heady purgatory of the first night, a ceremony which a director can influence only with encouraging smiles. Frank [Farrell], Sarajane [Avidon], Henry [Godinez] and Ned [Schmidke] have hit their best form. Lisa Dodson's Olivia is enchanting without sentiment. She gasps with pleasure at the forbidden impact of Cesario, throws herself across her stately chair, jumps up, spins deliriously on her heels and grabs her desk, then caresses the chair as she wishes Cesario had when she was in it. I've learned something about the part form her: combining force with vulnerability, this is someone who will play Cleopatra. Howard Witt, too, is a revelation. Paradoxically, nerves make him authoritative, every syllable precise and tight with meaning: without losing a single laugh, his is a real study of a wasted life still fighting for life—it could be Chekhov ... Greg Vinkler smells his audience like a wolf, but, suppressing the showman in himself, is markedly economical in his yellow stockings. One of his moustache-curlers falls off, which is one of those things that happen only on first nights. The curtain-call is, as they say, a blast.
The show turns out to be a substantial hit: it goes on to win some Jeff Awards, the Chicago equivalent of New York's Tonys. The Chicago Tribune calls it 'radiant ... the best locally-produced Shakespeare in years' and describes the set as an Elizabethan courtyard; meanwhile the Sun-Times thinks the 'revelatory' productions takes place in Charleston, run down after the Civil War.
A Midwestern welcome is a byword: no East Coast neurosis or Californian narcissism here. If you do something that is liked you will be stopped in the street by strangers asking you, impractically, to stay. For a few days I do workshops and give lectures—but eventually, life awaits even in the dead of winter, and I have sad English business that can't be postponed. Leaving a truly-grieved cast for the airport, I have the feeling of quite intense ties being casually snapped, and the oddest sense that far more than two months have passed ..., and I grumpily came away to what has turned out to be a love-match for us all. It is so cold at O'Hare airport that the liquids controlling the electronics in our 747 freeze and we sit on the runway for four hours, between one world and another: all the enthusiasm back in the city, like a band playing in the distance, begins to recede, and I feel stranded."
– Michael Pennington