Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Energizing version of TWELFTH NIGHT at Great Lakes Theater

Great Lakes Theatre opened its 55 th season with the delightful, perfectly conceived MY FAIR LADY.  It has followed up the repertory offering with an energizing version of William Shakespeare’s TWELFTH NIGHT.

TWELFTH NIGHT is considered one of the Bard’s finest comedies.  It is filled with romantic episodes, mingled with comic elements, with a sprinkling of farce mixed in, all focusing on requited and unrequited love.  As is the case with Shakespeare’s comic writing, it is filled with disguises, mistaken identities, cross-dressing, a witty fool, love at first sight, and misguided lovers and their attempts to love.

The story of this early seventeenth century tale, whose title alludes to the end of the Christmas season, finds the aristocratic born twins, Viola and Sebastian, separated in Ilyria following a shipwreck.  Each thinks the other is dead.

Viola disguises herself as a boy, thinking that she can find a way to sustain herself to gain a position unavailable to her as a female.  She finds a position with Duke Orsino, with whom she falls in love.  But he is in love with Countess Olivia.  Olivia, who is mourning the death of her brother, isn’t open to his wooing.  He sends Viola to try and get Olivia to open up her heart to the Duke. 

Unfortunately, Olivia falls in love with Viola who she perceives as a man.  Sebastian, Viola’s brother, in the meantime, appears, and Olivia, thinking he is Viola, expresses her love.  The duo, after a night of lovemaking, have a quick marriage.  Then conflict,  confusion and exposure of the “truth” reigns.

As is the case in almost all Shakespeare comedies, musical interludes, farcical actions by a fool and his henchmen, mixed up letters which lead to humorous interjections and wrong intentions, transpire.  And, of course, as the title of another Shakespeare comedy states, “All’s Well That Ends Well.”

Shakespeare’s writing is always filled with quotable quotes.  In this case such memorable statements as “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them,” “If music be the food of love, play on,” “Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit,” And, “Be not afraid of greatness,” pepper the script.

It is also the pattern of the Bard that major themes run throughout his scripts.  Gender identity and sexual attraction, as well as sexual ambiguity are present.   There is also some clear homoerotic text.  Olivia, for example, is in love with a woman, even if she thinks he is a man.  Orsino, remarks on the beauty of Cesario (Viola in disguise) even before her male disguise is removed.  And, not to be overlooked is Antonio, the sea captain who saved Viola’s twin brother showing  strong affection toward Sebastian.

Other themes include that of love as a cause of suffering, the folly of ambition, and the impossibility of love between individuals from different classes.

TWELFTH NIGHT is filled with musical interludes and lends itself to being transformed into a musical.  “Your Own Thing,” “Music Is,” and “Play On!” were based on the tale.

The Great Lakes production, under the direction of Draw Barr, is sprightly, reaching its peak during the periods of high farce.  Slapstick, double takes, playing for laughs, all energize the show.  Barr knows how to make the audience laugh by exaggerating lines, adding site gags, and even creating outrageous costumes.  He does not try to make this a message play.  Instead he takes advantage of the Bard’s lines and invitations to insert extended mayhem.

The cast is strong.  Highlight performers include Lynn Robert Berg as the pompous, put-upon Malvolio.  (His appearance in an ornate black bustier, garters and yellow stockings evoked prolonged laughter.)  Cassandra Bissell is excellent as the cross-dressing Viola.  Tom Ford is delightful as Sir Andrew Aguecheeck.  Juan Rivera Lebron (Orsino), Laura Perotta (Maria), M. A. Taylor singing and clowning as Feste, Aled Davies (Sir Toby Belch) and Christine Weber (Olivia) all are excellent.

Using a timeless approach to the sets, costumes and special effects, the design team has taken a “non-literal approach” to the unspecified period of the production.  The ambiguous music does little to enhance the effect of the show.  The presence of the female guitarist on a balcony perched above the stage enhanced the sound of the live music, but the guitarist’s sipping water, reading a book and random movements, when she was not playing, distracted from the stage business.

Capsule judgement:  TWELFTH NIGHT, one of Shakespeare’s most produced comedies, gets a creative, energized production.  It should please both Shakespeare enthusiasts and novices as it is an easy to understand and comprehensible staging with lots of humor and farcical periods.

TWELFTH NIGHT runs through, October 30, 2016  at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org