It is a rare event indeed for any artistic production to elicit unequivocal delight from an audience. Yet that’s exactly what happened on May 28 on the mainstage of Chicago Shakespeare Theater as Artists Breaking Limits + Expectations (A.B.L.E.) brought their engaging and—above all—joyful production of Twelfth Night to a near-capacity matinee crowd.
Founded in 2010 as the Teen Drama Troupe at Gigi’s Playhouse Chicago, A.B.L.E. is a company whose mission is to provide performing arts opportunities for individuals with Down syndrome and other developmental special needs. Its productions focus on empowering these actors to discover their own voices and self-expression so that they can share both who they are and what they can do with a wide audience by developing confidence and skills in each production. The company has put on ten theatrical productions and a feature film so far, and the full engagement of the audience with the twenty young actors onstage for this show is a testament to just how well the company showcases the talents of its members.
In keeping with the comedy of shifting identities in Twelfth Night, each actor played more than one role, and each role was performed by more than one actor: simple costume changes clearly notified the audience as to who was playing whom at any given moment in the performance. In order to prioritize the playing at the heart of theater, A.B.L.E. cleverly did away with the need for actors to memorize lines or to be hidden from view by thick scripts: rather, each actor was accompanied onstage by a facilitator, who dropped the lines in piece by piece for the actor to interpret as s/he saw fit. Rather than getting caught up in remembering words, or in the possible complexities of Shakespeare’s language, the actors could thus make full use of their voices and bodies to convey what the lines meant, resulting in some brilliantly vivid moments as an exasperated Maria expressed frustration with the dance-party antics of Sir Toby and his friends, an enamored Orsino emphasized his love for Olivia, and Malvolio gleefully and defiantly capered to show off his glamorous yellow stockings at the play’s finale. The genuineness of each inflection and gesture made every moment absolutely true within the story being told, and implicitly provoked useful questions: why shouldn’t Malvolio show off his stockings, after all, if he looks as wonderful in them as these actors do? In a play revolving around the changeability of human behavior, where Olivia can go from deep mourning to the giddiness of love in one scene, the diverse interpretations of each character by these individual performers made the topsy-turvy world of Illyria come brilliantly to life. The audience roared its approval and applauded the entrances and exits of each actor, sharing in the evident fun of the onstage action.
By the time the concluding ensemble song and accompanying dance was finished, my hands were red from clapping and the grin on my face mirrored those of everyone around me. Unquestionably, A.B.L.E.’s excellent and engaging production of Twelfth Night reminded us all that theater—and Shakespeare—is for everybody.
Alexandra Bennett is a Chicago-based actor, dramaturg, and an associate professor of English at Northern Illinois University, where she specializes in Shakespeare, early modern drama, modern British and American drama, and women’s and gender studies. She holds her PhD in English literature from Brandeis University, an MA in English literature from Western University (Canada) and a BA in English and history from Queen’s University (Canada).