Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Short Shakespeare! Twelfth Night

UIC Architecture Building, Thursday. March 3, 2016.Charles Osgood Photography
Charles Osgood Photography

How do we experience love, and how do we handle its intensity? The wish to love and be loved flavors human experience, but as Shakespeare reminds us in Twelfth Night, we should be careful what we wish for.  Last Saturday, I attended a performance of Short Shakespeare! Twelfth Night in Chicago Shakespeare’s Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier. I was delighted by the 75-minute production and the conscientious educational scaffolding surrounding it. Even with some thirty percent of the text cut for performance, the cast conveyed the story, spirit, physicality and musicality that make the play a perennial favorite among Shakespeare fans.

Twelfth Night is a flexible text that may be played anywhere between farce and tragicomedy, depending upon which lines and plot points the director chooses to emphasize. Kirsten Kelly’s direction opens the text to its target audience: elementary, middle, and high school students. In the service of accessibility and, to some extent, propriety, this production de-emphasizes the implications of gender switching and drunkenness, instead providing an examination of love’s giddiness. Each of the main characters experiences the disequilibrium of sudden and consuming love, and each reminds us that losing ourselves in love may make us vulnerable to embarrassment, or even humiliation.

The opening scene features Neal Moeller’s likeable Duke Orsino, calling for more music to feed his unrequited love for the Countess Olivia. His request fuels a somewhat discordant ditty banged out on a broken-down piano, eliciting the first laughs that on Saturday would gain and sustain momentum throughout the show. Just as the scene ends, Viola (Rebecca Hurd), who has washed up on shore following a shipwreck that separated her from her twin brother, Sebastian, emerges on top of the piano inquiring of the Sea Captain (Lynn Robert Berg) “What country is this?”

This melding of scenes is made possible by Scott Davis’s clever stage design, mixing elements of an aristocratic but disordered residence with mast-like pillars, leaning askew, wrapped in torn curtains/sails the color of the sea. A minimum of furniture provides domesticity for scenes set in both Orsino’s court and Olivia’s estate, tied together with a large patterned rug. (As this production will travel to schools and parks following its run on Navy Pier, the design must be portable.) Rachel Healy’s costumes accentuate an early twentieth Century seaside boardwalk vibe. Viola’s decision to disguise herself as a boy, “Cesario,” in order to serve in Orsino’s court, launches the plot, and when we next see her, she looks like a paper carrier with vest, cap, tie and bicycle.

Viola very quickly falls in love with Orsino, complicating her role as his male emissary in the wooing of Olivia, elegantly played by Krystel Lucas. Of course, Olivia just as quickly falls for Viola/Cesario, believing her to be a young man. Hurd’s exuberant Viola, believable in her disguise, confides directly to the audience, “O time, thou must untangle this, not I. / It is too hard a knot for me t’untie.” Like a protagonist from an engaging young adult novel, she carries us with her into increasingly absurd situations.

La Shawn Banks, as Olivia’s imperious steward, Malvolio, develops an opposing, yet equally compelling relationship with the audience. When Olivia sends him to deliver a ring to Cesario/Viola, he must chase her down on her bicycle, cleverly lit and placed on blocks to give the appearance of fast-paced pedaling, while Banks runs in place at breakneck speed to catch her. In Saturday’s performance, the kids and adults in the audience erupted into spontaneous applause as he finally caught her attention. While his “self-love,” as Olivia calls it, makes him intolerable to the other members of her household, his almost child-like response to what he mistakenly thinks is Olivia’s love note and his hissing impatience with Olivia’s gentlewoman, Maria (Lydia Berger Gray), garnered some of the show’s biggest laughs.

Cutting the play demands that actors use gesture effectively to convey meaning. Kelly’s cuts emphasize plot movement. She features the gulling of Malvolio, engineered by the zany members of Olivia’s household: Maria and Sir Toby Belch (Ronald Conner), with Feste (Will Mobley), Fabian (Donovan Diaz), and the doltish Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who is, literally, “as tall as any man in Illyria,” thanks to Dominic Conti’s stature. Conner’s Sir Toby, in the words of the actor himself, is “a guy you love to see show up, and a guy you love to see leave.” Mobley, as Feste, ably performs the play’s iconic tunes on a miniature guitar and interjects his witticisms as much to the audience as to the other characters. The prankish fight between Cesario and Sir Andrew features boxing gloves rather than swords, emblematic of Kelly’s softening of the play’s rough edges. Perhaps in the desire to help the audience comprehend the play, a few of the actors occasionally exaggerated their expressions, but not to the point of distraction. The fast-paced movement and dissolution of the fourth wall kept Saturday’s young audience members engaged throughout the show.

After Malvolio falls for the bait of Maria’s feigned epistle of love from Olivia and shuffles off his usual decorum for smiling, cross-gartering and yellow stockings, Olivia places him into the care of his household enemies. Malvolio’s ill treatment—he is bound, blindfolded, and kept in the dark—soon wears thin even with Sir Toby, whose line, “I would we were well rid of this knavery,” hangs in the air for a second or two, acknowledging the corrosiveness of bullying. Malvolio is excluded from the happy realignment of relationships occasioned by the appearance of Viola’s supposedly drowned brother, Sebastian. In the final scene, however, after swearing to be “revenged on the whole pack” of them and storming away, Malvolio is coaxed back on stage to join the other characters to dance and sing with Feste, “And the rain it raineth every day.” This production thus strikes a note of forgiveness that a darker interpretation would omit. Perhaps Kelly is inviting the audience to find our common humanity through our lovesick foibles.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater takes its role as ambassador of Shakespeare’s work seriously, and the Short Shakespeare productions feature supports to the performance both before and after the show. For Twelfth Night, a folded, 8.5 x 11 quarto program includes a plot summary of the first three acts, several full-color photos from different scenes, and cast responses to the question, “Have you ever been a fool in love?” Just prior to opening curtain on Saturday, Nate Santana, who plays Sebastian, appeared on stage and, in addition to making the typical request to turn off cell phones, provided a short lesson on how to watch and listen to Shakespeare’s work, reminding the audience that it is okay to not understand every word, and that paying close attention to gestures, facial expression, tone of voice, and language can help them to follow the story. Immediately following the show, all cast members remained on stage for a Q & A session, deftly and generously hosted by Marilyn Halperin, CST’s Director of Education and Communications. Halperin made a point of taking questions from the youngest audience members and distributing the opportunities to respond amongst several cast members. One of the first questions came from a boy of about twelve who asked, “Do you think the other characters were too mean to Malvolio?” Clearly the boy had closely observed gesture, expression, tone and language.

Thinking about how students often experience Shakespeare in school, marching through the text and answering comprehension questions without considering Shakespeare’s words as a set of possibilities for actors, I wonder whether theater experiences such as this one would make for far better curriculum than that provided by the current testing regime. On Saturday, the school-aged audience members swarmed the actors for autographs and photos in the lobby following the show, reminding me of John Dewey’s assertion that the best kind of educational experience is that which leads the learner to desire another, similar experience.

Timothy J. Duggan is an associate professor of Education at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, where he teaches English education and English courses, including Shakespeare, and coordinates a partnership between the University and Amundsen High School. He earned his EdD in curriculum and instruction from the University of South Dakota, his MA in English literature from the University of Nebraska and his BA in English literature from University of California at Santa Barbara. He is the author of three books, including Advanced Placement Classroom: Hamlet and Advanced Placement Classroom: Julius Caesar from Prufrock Press. Read More…