London-based Filter Theatre brought Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s audience inside the fourth wall for their rollicking adaptation of Twelfth Night. Produced in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Filter’s Twelfth Night used clever doubling of roles and direct involvement of the audience to render the isthmus of Navy Pier an Illyrian community that shared in equal measure in the heartbreak of Viola and Olivia, the humiliation of Malvolio, and the romantic surprises of Sebastian and Orsino. A cast of six plus two musicians and the stage manager barreled through the entire play (minus Antonio) in a lightning-fast 110 minutes.
The audience assembled in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s upstairs black box studio with the house lights fully up and musicians Fred Thomas and Alan Pagan in place along with stage manager Christie DuBois. The small stage, a long step up from the floor, looked like the stage in a bar set for a musical act, with mics in stands, black folding chairs, and three tables angled around the rear perimeter of the stage laden with synthesizers, sound boards, and a laptop. Harry Jardine as Orsino took the stage to conduct the musicians for the first few minutes of the performance in raucous music that made liberal use of effects. Establishing the audience as part of the cast and the importance of music for the whole enterprise, he romped up the center aisle to consult with audience members about the quality of the performance he had elicited before returning to the stage to utter the play’s famous opening verse line: “If music be the food of …”
Pretending not to remember his line (as Harry Jardine) or not to know how to complete the sentence (as Orsino), he kept playing this game until the audience accepted their role, and assisted in filling in the blank with “love.” The reward for the audience’s successful performance was the completion of the speech, affectuoso. Music constituted the main structuring element in the performance—with raucous music the indicator of emotions run riot—and one of the most important links between the cast and the audience, who were incorporated into the production from its earliest moments. In wonderful comedic business, Ronke Adekoluejo’s Olivia provocatively bowed an amped bass situated suggestively at crotch level in a desperate play for Cesario’s affections; when this move failed to achieve the desired effect in an upright position, Adekoluejo flung herself on the floor, continuing the performance spread-eagled, a screech of feedback signifying the happy ending for her one-woman band.
All members of the cast but one wore au courant street clothes; in fact, Amy Marchant, who doubled the twin roles of Viola and Sebastian, affected her cross-dressed transformation into Cesario by borrowing a coat and a hat from men in the audience. The sartorial outlier was Dan Poole, as Sir Toby Belch. A Shakespearean revenant in crushed velvet doublet, puff pants, ruff, and stockings, Toby’s concession to the production’s modern time signature was to reel across the stage in his period costume quaffing from Budweiser tallboys, toting brown paper bags of McDonald’s hamburgers and fries. A hack-of-all-plays, he delivered bombastic snippets of Shakespeareana such as the opening Chorus of Henry V (“Oh, for a muse of fire”); Macbeth’s hallucinogenic murder speech (“Is this a dagger that I see before me?”); and Hamlet’s mournful coda to his pun-laden interlude with the Gravedigger (“Alas, poor Yorick”). He enthusiastically took a seat in the audience periodically to enjoy the onstage action, generously offering his fries to those seated around him.
Throughout the production, none of the performers ever left the performance space, staying to watch the ensuing action either in one of the chairs on the stage, or from the audience. In addition to the doubling of a few of the parts and the elimination of Antonio and Fabian, the onstage technology assisted in the streamlining of the play. The report from Orsino’s first messenger to the Lady Olivia, the predecessor of Cesario, came in as a text message read aloud (complete with the dutiful report of crying emoji to accompany her announcement that she would remain in mourning for her deceased brother, and would not, therefore, be entertaining embassies of love). With the exception of appended emoji, the text delivered (and musically performed) throughout the performance was Shakespeare’s, though at times it arrived via quirky delivery mechanisms: the responses to Viola’s Act 1, scene 2 queries about her whereabouts, and what she should do, now in Illyria, came over a transistor radio, Shakespeare’s lines alternating with snippets of the BBC shipping news.
The doubling of roles and the direct involvement of the audience were pointed, and poignant. Demonstrating considerable range, Jardine played both an imperious Orsino and a ridiculous Sir Andrew Aguecheek, an inspired bit of doubling that underscored the sharp contrast between Olivia’s two suitors prior to her heels-over-head plunge into love at first sight with Cesario. A clown in the European sense of the word, Sandy Foster doubled the roles of Feste and Maria, simply popping a red clown nose off and on to affect her transformation, and making immediate sense of Maria’s ultimate marriage to Sir Toby (a marital union that went unheralded in the production, except via their obvious attraction to one another during a protracted performance of the lyric, “What Is Love?”).
Fergus O’Donnell’s Malvolio visually paired with Ronke Adekoluejo’s Olivia, both of them clad all in black. Filter wittily anticipated Malvolio’s gulling at the hands of Maria, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew by having him overhear Olivia’s blazon of Cesario/Viola following his/her first visit to her on behalf of Orsino, clearly mistaking its effusions as commentary on him. Already confident of Olivia’s attraction to him, Malvolio was insufferable in the late-night carousing connected with a completely debauched performance of “What Is Love,” which included getting audience members to toss squishy balls onto a Velcro-stripped fool’s cap sported by Jardine’s Andrew. He eventually recruited an audience member to similarly attempt to catch balls with his head, and then he and Maria gathered audience members to come on stage to dance along to “What Is Love.” Shortly after a pizza delivery to the packed stage, an outraged Malvolio stormed in to throw the party off switch. He upended pizza boxes, slapping slices out of the hands of audience members with such vehemence that some of them flew to the black cinder block walls, their cheese adhering them there.
Malvolio’s self-importance and vindictive suppression of fun made it easier to stomach the cruel prank played upon him by Maria, Toby and Andrew. When he found the letter the wily Maria penned, mimicking Lady Olivia’s handwriting, and designed to delude him into the belief that his lady longs to make him her lord, Malvolio had to be bludgeoned over the head with the significance of the letters “M, O, A, I” in the riddling letter, the full cast whispering them around the stage perimeter. The longer he struggled, the louder their chant and its musical accompaniment became, the whole audience eventually joining in, shouting the chant until comprehension dawned, and Malvolio stripped down to yellow tube socks and gold lame hot pants, lasciviously running the letter’s paper promises over his torso, thrusting his crotch into its folds.
In addition to joining in moments of subplot frivolity, the audience was also conscripted to make one in the main plot. Viola entered for the first time through the center aisle in a cheetah-print poncho, her hair wet. She faced the audience to ask “What country, friend, is this? … And what should I do, in Illyria?” as she listened to responses from Shakespeare’s text on her transistor radio. Olivia entered to Viola/Cesario from the top row of the tiered audience seating to “draw the curtain” and show Cesario “the picture” of her face after Viola repeatedly asked the audience if she was truly the lady of the house. In the play’s final scene of recognition and reunion, Amy Marchant faced the audience and delivered all of both Viola’s and Sebastian’s lines directly to us, rendering us participant-observers of their reunion, both audience and addressee, collectively twinned to her.
How can this black box hold the isle of Illyria? Is this my twin that I see before me, her face toward my face? Alas, poor Malvolio—I knew him, Olivia; a fellow of infinite fuss, of most excellent priggery. When the revels are ended, you will find that you have made one in the comedy in a production in which music truly is the food of love.
Regina Buccola is a professor and the chair of the Department of Literature and Languages at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where she also serves as core faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies. She has published several books on early modern British drama and culture, most recently as editor of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Critical Guide and co-editor, with Peter Kanelos, of Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Suiting the Action to the Word. Recent journal publications have appeared in Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England and Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation. She serves as the scholar-in-residence at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and is one of the Midwest American reviewers for the online journal, Reviewing Shakespeare.