by Chris Jones
April 6, 2009
About the only serious thing out of joint with Josie Rourke’s superb Twelfth Night on Sunday afternoon was the unseasonably satanic snow falling outside on Navy Pier, messing with the White Sox home opener, the visit of the International Olympic Committee and, for heavens sake, Shakespeare.
For this jolly and enjoyable show at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (OK, so it’s indoors) was conceived as a happily organic homage both to traditional Shakespearean comedy, pretty much as the old fellow wrote it for land-locked London, as well as to those warm-weather pleasures of the water.
Lucy Osborne, the visiting British set designer and Rourke’s frequent collaborator, took inspiration from the boardwalk struts of the urban pier and wrestled them into a huge wooden heart, leading seductively into a huge tank of water wherein Olivia, Viola and the rest of the crew wade, paddle, splash the front rows, frolic and even, in the deep bit, dive.
Now granted, Navy Pier is more concrete than wood, and its place in the heart of Chicagoans is compromised by the cost of parking. But idealization is the food of Shakespearean comedy, even pier idealization, and Osborne, who came up with one of the best sets this Midwestern Courtyard theater has ever seen, plays on.
This isn’t some water ballet, nor does the show use the water in the kind of sophisticated, sculptured narrative fashion made famous by Mary Zimmerman in her brilliant “Metamorphoses.” Rather, Rourke’s show has one naked toe in the so-called “original practices” camp. The attire (Osborne again) is both Elizabethan-keyed and waterproof. Anachronisms, deconstructions and directorial script-writing tendencies are all fully absent. Period relationships of class, sex and station are unambiguously retained. And unlike most “Twelfth Nights” these days, where a good portion of the more-than-ample antics of Sir Toby Belch and his comedic pals get washed down the drain, this one brings off almost the entire text.
Aside from the geographic referent, the water very cleverly intensifies the themes of the text. (You remember the plot: Viola disguises herself as a boy to get close to the guy she loves, only to end up as surrogate wooer of Olivia, who falls in love with Viola, thinking she’s a boy, and so on and so on.).
Twelfth Night has a healthy obsession with the elements. “Tis with him in standing water,” says Malvolio of the gender-straddling Viola, “between boy and man.” And as Rourke, who runs the Bush Theatre in London, shrewdly exploits, water can be everything from an escape to a shape-shifter to a truth serum.
Sometimes characters fear it—water, after all, can reveal both gender and desire—and sometimes they embrace it, for who does not like their lover to look a little wet? Meanwhile, a good portion of the audience, especially the younger end, mostly likes getting splashed.
The key performance in a uniformly excellent cast comes from Michelle Beck, whose pitch-perfect Viola captures both the requisite attention to sexual desire and a certain geeky, spontaneous adolescent innocence, given full flight when she unleashes some of the wet stuff on the front rows. Thanks to some cool wigs, she looks exactly like her bro‘ (honestly played by Peterson Townsend). As Olivia, Karen Aldridge gets to show off her ample comedic side after putting up with Lady Macbeth, and Mark L. Montgomery brings an openness and crispness to Orsino.
The irrepressible Larry Yando certainly doesn’t stint on the malaises of poor Malvolio—his monologues are tours de force—but aside from the cross-gartered sourpuss, the show is generally a very warm, clear, family-friendly and open affair, with Dan Kenney (one of the funniest Aguecheeks I’ve seen), the jovial Scott Jaeck and the endlessly puckish Ross Lehman leading the aquatic frivolities.
There is a second-act sag in pacing and dramatic stakes, certainly, and the show would be superior for the loss of some comedic actorly indulgences and at least 10 or 15 minutes of running time.
But those are just pluggable leaks in a hugely enjoyable tunnel of love.
Read more critical acclaim for Twelfth Night