November 8, 2018 § 3 Comments
Shakespeare’s plays are undoubtedly great literature, but it is easy to forget that they are also amazing acting machines. The Arabian Shakespeare Festival’s current Twelfth Night is so full of virtuoso performances, including some very unexpected casting and doublings, that I am reminded again that when you bet big on the actors, small is beautiful.
This is ASF’s first foray into Shakespeare’s comedies, after a series of performances of tragedies I admired–especially a conceptually brilliant Othello in 2014. I was not sure how their house style and mission might adjust to this switch. Any doubts I might have had were almost instantly swept away by the sheer joy of playing exhibited by the charming, versatile and skillful cast of six.
Layers of Delight
Twelfth Night is one of the middle comedies, with twenty roles in the cast list. I’ve seen wonderful productions of the play that were produced with a one actor/one role casting scheme. In these, the bittersweet story of a pair of separated twins (each believing the other lost at sea) who slowly work their way back to a reunion, the overthrow of a puritanical steward standing in the way of pleasure, and the surprising manner in which the courtship of a grieving countess by an admiring Duke ends in happily in marriage–just not to each other, was always satisfying. That is one layer of delight and it can be enough, in and of itself.
ASF’s production, insightfully designed and directed by Audrey Rumsby, sounds all those notes, but it has many more layers in play that make it much more than the sum of those parts.
Rumsby’s set design, echoing the central prop in the play, a toy theatre/music box, turns the Royce Gallery’s tiny playing space into a virtue. We know from her concept that we are seeing an imaginative romp. It invites us to think of the play as literal “play,” a game in progress. Elizabeth Smith’s whimsical costume designs capture the essence of each character, which is crucially important since actors quickly switch from one role to another with additions or subtractions of only a piece or two.
Thou Art Translated!
The cast uniformly delivers on the promise of this premise! John R. Lewis is a dignified and outstanding, if unconventional, Duke Orsino, but with the addition of a big, winestained ruff he transforms into Orsino’s antipode, the perfectly-named drunken reprobate, Sir Toby Belch. Watching him switch back-and-forth is enchanting above and beyond anything that he does in either role–a layer of pleasure that you don’t get in a conventional staging.
Rebecca Pingree raises the bar higher in her main role as the jester, Feste, as she demonstrates some serious musical chops in addition to her acting skills. (The whole production, in fact, is filled with excellent live music performed by the cast, under the musical direction of Lindsey Schmeltzer.) Very early on she doubles the usually forgettable role of the unnamed “Captain” in a surprisingly convincing masculine portrait, but reserves her comic firepower for a thoroughly confused (and confusing) priest in the play’s finale. She is terrific in all three parts.
Amelia Adams grounds her portraits of the male twin, Sebastian, and the insufferable puritan Malvolio in the physical techniques of Commedia dell’Arte. Neither role is realistically convincing, nor meant to be. (ASF could have cast a male actor, after all, if that was the goal.) Instead, both parts are suffused with deep observational insights about how we construct “leading men” and “the authority of male privilege” that can only be conveyed to an audience when they are obviously put on, instead of inherent in the actor.
Livia Gomes Demarchi plays two female roles at opposite ends of the “leading vs. character women” spectrum. As the Countess Olivia she is proud in declining the proffers of love from Duke Orsino but reduced to a quivering jelly in the presence of “Cesario,” whom she adores without realizing she is pursuing a disguised woman. As Maria, the pragmatic, scheming lady-in-waiting she is almost unrecognizable as the same actress although all that has really changed is the addition of a bonnet.
Kate Rose Reynolds plays the afore-mentioned twin-in-disguise, Viola/Cesario, (in both her female and male forms) with panache. This is the only “doubling” built into the play, and if it is unsurprising, it is no less entertaining because we see it in the context of a whole shape-shifting cast. I’ve seen an awful lot of “Cesarios” whose entire characterization appeared to be wearing a hat, but Reynolds seriously explores the mental transformation of her character when she assumes the male persona for protection. Hers is the most insightful Viola of my experience.
The actor in the announced cast with which I was most familiar previously was Jennifer Le Blanc, whose Desdemona for this company thrilled me. I was so disappointed to see that she would be playing two minor parts, neither of which seemed to me to make particularly good use of her talents: Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and the dedicated (probably lovesick) protector of Sebastian, the sea captain Antonio. I saved discussion of her performance for last, because I could not have been more wrong. She was astonishing–hysterically funny and heartbreakingly serious by turns–all night long. I found myself desperately racing ahead through the play’s scenes in my mind thinking about how soon I would see her again any time she left the stage. The virtuosity of the performances, of the transformations, and of the ensemble work was exemplary. Above all, her joy in playing the roles was palpable.
The Means Are Limited but the Pay-off Is HUGE
ASF’s production is intimate. The space is small. The cast is reduced to just six players. The set and costumes are simple. The means are limited but the pay-off is huge. The play is actually MORE enjoyable because of the imaginative and versatile way that it is produced. I admire this company and have championed their work in the past, but now I have to say that as it matures it improves.
If you love Shakespeare, go see this production. If you love the theatre, go see this production. If you want to deeply understand why Shakespeare is the quintessential theatre artist, do not miss this production! There aren’t many seats. Get one while you can.
Twelfth Night – Nov.1–18, 2018, By William Shakespeare / Directed by Audrey Rumsby
Royce Gallery – 2901 Mariposa St., San Francisco, CA 94110
By phone: 408-499-0017
This review is of the Sunday, Nov. 4 performance.