Filter Theatre – Twelfth Night

l-r Oliver Dimsdale and Poppy Miller in Filter Theatre Company's 'Twelfth Night' - photo credit Robert Day, DSC_0864.JPG

Shakespeare may not have been a punk rocker, but Twelfth Night is probably his most punk-rock play. It certainly is in Filter Theatre’s version at the Upstairs studio theater at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The play, a remount of a 2006 production created for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works Festival and directed by Sean Holmes, revels in the play’s chaotic, youthful, and anti-authoritarian plot about a group of ne’er-do-wells partying and plotting the demise of their pretentious overseer. In this play, the carnivalesque context of the Elizabethan Twelfth Night is recast as a rock show, complete with live music, tallboys of lager, and swaggering performances.

The production’s concept is visible as the audience enters the performance space, designed to look more like the Empty Bottle, one of Chicago’s venerable PBR-soaked rock venues, than a space for traditional theater. The stage is set with tables loaded with music gear—keyboards, analog synthesizers, MacBooks, and a mixing board—as well as a full drum kit, bass guitar, microphone stands, and assorted props, beer cans, and debris.

The show begins as the performers tune instruments, check microphone levels, and chat with the audience, and the play’s opening lines are pitched as brainstorming during band practice. Harry Jardine as Orsino rehearses the first phrase several times, “If music be the food of…,” and the audience completes it yelling “love!” This initiates a raucous jam session, with Orsino conducting the other performers as band members. Finally, from the balcony in the audience, he finishes the opening lines: “If music be the food of love, play on, / Give me excess of it.” At this point, the relationship between actors and audience is set, Filter takes Orsino’s exhortation as a mission statement, and they offer a celebration of excess during their brisk ninety-minute set.

Although this might sound like a jarringly revisionist version of the play, celebrations of Twelfth Night, or the Feast of the Epiphany, in Elizabethan England were notoriously rowdy affairs. By the sixteenth century, the feast day, marking the end of the Christmas season, had evolved into a Feast of Fools, a blasphemous carnival holiday. Anne Barton, in her introduction to the play in The Riverside Shakespeare, explains that it was “a period of holiday abandon in which the normal rules and order of life were suspended or else deliberately inverted, in which serious issues and events mingled perplexingly with revelry and apparent madness.” The modern rock concert, complete with overwhelmingly loud music, flowing booze, provocative fashion, and occasionally dancing and assorted debauchery, is a fitting contemporary equivalent, a break from the rules of everyday life.

Filter’s production emphasizes the punk rock ethos of the play by cutting the script to feature the revelry and hijinks of Sir Toby’s gang and Feste’s songs. The centerpiece of the production is a rendition of “What is love” as a folk-punk anthem that would make the Mekons proud. It begins with Sir Toby, played by Dan Poole as the center of the party and the only character in ragged Elizabethan ruff, doublet, and hose, waking up in the middle of the night, hung over, and doing physical comedy with a bag of chips, while muttering lines from the song. The scene—and the song—escalates as the audience joins in a game of catch with foam balls and a Velcro hat on Sir Andrew’s head. Meanwhile, the crowd is invited to clap and sing along, a dozen audience members are invited on stage to dance, and a pizza guy shows up to pass around boxes of hot slices.

The audience is explicitly complicit in this disorder, and when Fergus O’Donnell’s Malvolio shuts it down, he scolds us too. Played as a killjoy heavy metal gear head, he explodes at the late-night musicians, but later—prompted by Maria’s deceit—he puts on a show of his own. He struts around the stage and the audience in yellow hot pants, knee socks, and nothing else, dancing and playing air guitar. In this production, our alignment with the revelers, and Malvolio’s hypocritical willingness to obnoxiously celebrate himself, makes his eventual downfall more humorous than horrifying.

Through an impressive trick of editing and double casting, the production keeps the small ensemble of performers involved in the party. Jardine plays Sir Andrew as well as Orsino, Sandy Foster plays both Feste and Maria, and Amy Marchant plays Viola and her twin Sebastian—the other minor characters are cut or absorbed. With only minor costume changes—the addition of a clown nose for Feste for instance—the characters move in and out of scenes and songs seamlessly, increasing the velocity of the performance and blurring the lines between the nobles and the servants. Through it all, Foster’s Feste punctuates the chaos with her menacing snarl and jittery Ian Curtis-like kicks and punches.

This unruly spirit, and the audience’s participation in it, also infects the love stories. When Marchant’s shipwrecked Viola arrives in the Illyria rock club, she is wet and staggering through the audience. After marveling at her surroundings, she asks the audience for a disguise, a man’s jacket and hat. She tries on a couple of offerings before settling on a leather jacket and a knit hat from the balcony. Placing this costuming choice in the hands of the audience reinforces the collaborative nature of the production and positions the audience as a confidant. Later Viola, in her “Cesario” disguise, is wooed by Olivia with an erotic bass solo, reveling in an excess of love and music much like Orsino at the beginning of the play.

By the time the entire cast performs the closing number, “When that I was and a little tiny boy (With hey, ho, the wind and the rain),” the servants have partied, Malvolio is chastened, true identities are revealed, and pairs of lovers are united. Time has untangled the knots that Viola could not. But order has not been restored—not entirely. The band packs up its gear, and the club turns on the house lights, but there is the sense that things have been transformed. In Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus identifies the punk spirit of the twentieth century in Johnny Rotten growling about anarchy and tearing down walls of British respectability. Filter Theatre is overturning conventions too, but it is also building spaces for exuberance, joy, and love—an excess of it.

Aaron Krall is a lecturer in the department of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he teaches drama and first-year writing, and writes about theater and the city. He holds his PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, an MS in theatre history from Illinois State University and his BA in English from University of St. Francis.