Thursday, October 17, 2013

CWRU/CPH MFA production of TWELFTH NIGHT goes somewhat awry

TWELFTH NIGHT, now on stage in the Helen Theatre in the Allen Theatre complex of PlayhouseSquare, is the last ensemble presentation of the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program’s class of 2014.  The program intends to give the students a chance to work with America’s leading theatre artists, appear on a professional stage, and, during their last year, journey to New York to showcase their talents.

The CWRU/CPH program has produced the likes of Rich Sommer (MFA ’04) who was in last year’s Broadway production of HARVEY and is a co-star on TV’s MAD MEN.  Another grad is 2012 Tony nominee, Elizabeth Davis (MFA ’06), for her starring role in the musical ONCE.

TWELFTH NIGHT, otherwise known as WHAT YOU WILL, is a comedy with farcical overtones that was originally developed to celebrate the Christmas season, though it contains no holiday references. The play, which was written in about 1601, uses devices such as musical interludes and farcical disorder, as well as traditional text to accomplish Shakespeare’s purpose.

It is one of the Bard’s three “mature comedies.”  The others are MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and AS YOU LIKE IT.  It contains traditional elements of Elizabethan romantic comedy including mistaken identity, separated twins, gender-crossing disguises, and obstacles that must be overcome in order to discover “true” love.  It goes beyond the norm by adding references to insanity as well as the madness of love.

The plot centers on Viola, a wealthy young lady who is shipwrecked, disguises herself as a boy to gain employment, and gets in the service of Orsino, a bachelor Duke of Illyria.  Orsino is in love with Olivia, a wealthy countess who is in self-imposed long-term mourning due to the death of her brother.  Unbeknownst to Viola, her twin brother, Sebastian, who was also on the ship, has been saved and is in Illyria.  Olivia falls in love with Viola, thinking she is a male.  Viola falls in love with Orsino.  A court jester, Olivia’s drunken uncle and his henchmen, a pompous rich gentleman who courts Olivia, and an assortment of other locals, add to the merriment and the march toward a happy ending.

This is Shakespearean merriment at its best.  Well, that’s the intent, but, unfortunately, under the direction of Guy Stroman, all does not necessarily go well.

The director has cut some of the play’s initial dialogue and actions, making the initial entrance of Viola and her actions, unclear.  Anyone not already familiar with the story might well be confused as to what is going on.

Stroman has also changed the setting from Illyria, on the Dalmatian coast in Europe, to the Mississippi Delta area of America’s Deep South.  As he explains, “My desire [was] to make the work accessible, passionate, truly funny, and well, human.”  He continues,  “The setting needed to be near water because of the shipwreck that separates twins Sebastian and Viola.”  He further states, “I felt that Shakespeare’s words would work great with the sound of the Delta blues.”  

There is nothing wrong with changing the setting if there is a clear purpose, but that change requires some obligations.  The deep south of the US has a distinctive vocal sound…accenting of words, use of a drawl, and language variations that are unique to the area.  Stroman made the setting changes that obligate him, as the director, to insure the performers and technical designers understood and bought into the concept.  He also needed to guide them to develop the concept.  It is here that Stroman seems to have stumbled.

The cast varied greatly in their “southern sounds,” from much to none.  Of course Sebastian and Viola are not of the area, so their pronunciations needed to be parallel, not like those who are residents of the newly created “South” Illyria.   While Olivia’s suitor, Malvolio, did the old South proud, Olivia spoke like a Midwesterner.  Sir Toby Belch twanged away, while Orsino drawled not.  Feste, the fool, sang and played the music of the Delta with verve and authenticity, but many in the cast didn’t follow suit.  After a while the southern setting’s vocal requirements became a detriment.  This was definitely not the actors’ fault, but the lack of consistent directorial decisions.

The black box performance space was set up as a very elongated thrust stage, with the audience seated on three sides.  It is often difficult for some in the audience to clearly hear lines in thrust staging due to the actors having their backs or profiles to some part of the audience at all times.  To alleviate the problem requires having the actors constantly change positions so they face the various sides of the audience on a rotating basis.  But the director did little to adjust to the thrust and added to the problems by having actors often speak directly to the back wall, making it difficult for all the audience to hear the lines and see their facial expressions.

The set design, which included constant moving of settings on and off the stage slowed down the action.  This script needs fast pacing, especially during the farcical segments.   The play does not need realistic settings.  A chair or a bench would have sufficed, rather than having constant interruptions as stair units, semi-walls and porches were brought on and off the stage.  Scenic Designer Tiffany Scribner’s back wall, consisting of Southern greenery interspersed with photo frames, and windows which are cleverly used for farcical interludes, works well.

Some of the performances were outstanding.  Stephen Michael Spencer has been excellent in all of his CWRU/CPH outings.  His guitar playing, singing of meanings rather than just words, his comic timing, facial dexterity and consistency of character development, was impressive in his creation of Feste, the jester/fool.

In spite of her lack of a southern accent, Christa Meyer developed a clear character as Olivia.  This is another of the company who has consistently been excellent in her performances.

Therese Anderberg was charming as Viola, though she could have “butched-up” her Cesario, to create a more realistic “boy” image.

Bernard Bygott has a nice touch with farce.  He is at his best when he is playing the exaggerated joker or drunk.  His Sir Toby Belch was the performance’s comic highlight.  TJ Ganley was excellent as the foppish Malvolio, nicely balancing affectation with comic style.

Sarah Kinsey did a nice turn as Maria, the mischievous maid, but why was she also cast in the role of Antonio, a male, with an obvious fake beard, is a mystery.  The role is not one of false identity.

Maureen Patterson’s lighting design works well, especially in creating the storm at the start of the play.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  The Case Western Reserve/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program’s class of 2014 has some excellent actors who should do well in their professional pursuits.  Their production of TWELFTH NIGHT has some performance highlights, but the students appear to have been done a disservice by what could be declared a misdirected version of TWELFTH NIGHT.  Maybe they can use the experience to learn the necessity of consistency of intent and directing execution.

TWELFTH NIGHT runs through October 26, 2013 at the Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre (The Helen) on the lower level of CPH’s Allen Theatre.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to