by Dan Zeff
April 6, 2009
The current production of Twelfth Night may go down in Chicago Shakespeare Theater annals as “the swimming pool show.” The CST stage is dominated by a 7,000-gallon pool that covers almost all the playing area.
Throughout the show the actors wade, swim, cavort, belly flop, and generally splash around, occasionally dousing the front row spectators.
Guest British director Josie Rourke takes a huge risk in her pool concept, but what starts out as a novelty soon becomes an accepted, sometimes valuable, theatrical and dramatic tool in the story, where funny, playful, occasionally serious things happen.
Aside from the pool designed by Lucy Osborne, Rourke takes a traditional approach to the comedy. Osborne’s costumes are generic Elizabethan and there are no high concept games played with the characters. The result is a presentation that is lucidly spoken and inventively staged, everything a spectator expects from a CST show and almost always gets.
The storyline is the customary Shakespearean comic tushery of mistaken identities, gender confusions, and happy endings. Viola is shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria, ruled by Duke Orsino. She disguises herself as a young man and enters the service of the Duke who thinks he is in love with the Countess Olivia. That lady is in mourning for her recently deceased brother and sequestered herself from the company of men for seven years. Orsino sends Viola, renamed Cesario, to woo Viola in his name. In the blinking of an eye Viola falls in love with Cesario who has already fallen in love with Orsino.
That’s the romantic portion of the narrative. But the play really belongs, at least in the CST production, to Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s boozing rascal cousin, and Malvolio, her prudish and arrogant steward. Scott Jaeck makes Sir Toby a larger than life Falstaffian comic figure, though with more malice and less of Falstaff’s wit.
Sir Toby’s adversary is the pompous, puritanical, and self-deluded Malvolio, performed with chilly brilliance by Larry Yando. Malvolio’s letter reading scene, with Sir Toby and his cohorts lurking behind a hedge, is the best I’ve ever seen. Almost everyone in the ensemble is very good but Jaeck and Yando are exceptional.
There are more than a dozen interlocking characters in Twelfth Night, most of them under some form of delusion. The most clear-headed character is Feste, Olivia’s fool, played with his usual comic flair by Ross Lehman, who owns the patent on playing Shakespearean clowns in local productions and sings the Bard’s wistful songs with charm and poignancy.
I am grateful to Dan Kenney for his comic moderation in playing the flamboyantly foolish country bumpkin Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Kenney renders the man in all his silliness without tipping over into low comedy shtick.
Special recognition goes to Chris Sullivan, who gives the normally minor role of Viola’s friend Antonio unusual presence and dramatic heft. Sullivan previously delivered searing performances in “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and “The Hairy Ape” in Chicago second tier theaters. Featured roles absolutely must be found on the area’s major stages for this gifted actor.
The lovers are led by Michelle Beck’s fetching performance as Violia/Cesario. Mark Montgomery is a commanding Orsino, an agreeable departure from frequently effete, self-absorbed interpretations of the character. Karen Aldridge tends to shriek a lot as Olivia, but her animated take on the character certainly adds energy to the production. Ora Jones is first rate as Maria, Olivia’s waiting gentlewoman and the brains of the Belch-Aguecheek-Feste gang seeking Malvolio’s humiliation. Peterson Townsend comes in late in the action as Viola’s supposedly drowned twin brother to roil the narrative with all those identity confusions. His Sebastian really looks like he could be mistaken for his sister by the perplexed characters in the courts of Olivia and Orsino.
The pool occupies the stage area with characters entering and exiting from the rear through a giant heart-shaped framework of wooden slats like an oversized valentine. The playing area is extended vertically at times, especially with the imprisoned Malvolio is lowered from the rafters in a harness contraption to represent the dark room where he is incarcerated.
Twelfth Night isn’t a profound play but it’s loaded with fun characters entertaining us with their amusing, if improbable, antics. Veteran viewers of the play should enjoy the pool ingredient as an agreeably variation on the standard presentation of the show. First time spectators may wonder how the play can be performed without the pool.
The bottom line is that the CST has delivered its fun with intelligence, humor, and creativity. Even people intimidated by Shakespeare will find this production accessible and loaded with visual and verbal felicities.
Read more critical acclaim for Twelfth Night