Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks – Twelfth Night

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In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, after having quickly tricked Cesario into straying from Orsino’s prepared speeches of courtship, the Countess Olivia triumphantly declares that the poor Viola-in-disguise is “Now out of your text” (1.5.204). This causes Cesario to abandon the “text” completely, so that Olivia receives passionate words directly from the heart, perhaps for the first time, and ultimately falls in love with this unwitting messenger.

Similarly, it was the extra-textual, intuitive nature of Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks: Twelfth Night that drew love from the audience at Welles Park. Before the show began, Will Mobley, the show’s Feste, addressed an audience that professed to be about half newcomers to Shakespeare’s works and advised them to use context to guide their experience when the text itself became too impenetrable. Flanked by the grand Welles Gazebo on one side and a group of elderly men playing bocce on the other, and preceded by a riveting presentation by the Old Town School of Folk Music that had many playgoers dancing in their seats, CST gave a performance that enabled the audience to use this context to enjoy a show that was true to the spirit of Shakespeare’s words while updating and packaging them for a modern, casual setting.

Presented with a play that often rings with dark notes even as it is undoubtedly a comedy, director Kirsten Kelly and the performers were able to remove some of this ambiguity for an audience that included dogs, babies, and balloons, as well as attentive listeners. While some might say this detracts from the play’s overall complexity and Shakespeare’s artistic achievement, the beauty of theater is that it is adaptable to the context outside it in the same way that it is able to use onstage context to draw listeners in. For this particular show, the decision to turn Orsino’s and Olivia’s melancholy into melodrama was the right one. For example, Orsino made his entrance carrying an enormous portrait of Olivia done in lurid colors, which he then proceeded to dance with and eventually kiss rather emphatically, laying on it a large, wet smack that was audible over the “food of love” coming from Feste’s piano. We were unquestionably in a comedy from the start.

The transformation of Feste, the “wise fool” originally created for the more satirical and serious clown Robert Armin, into a lively jester-turned-musician kept much of the more confusing dialogue at bay and consistently kept the energy of the show high. Feste often speaks in riddles that take us a moment to puzzle out. Some of these moments were kept, such as his logical proof that Olivia is really the fool and not he (1.5.61), but many of them were cut, rightfully I think, as it kept the audience’s attention moving in this abridged, outdoor production. They had also composed an upbeat musical score for many of Feste’s songs, particularly the finale known most often as “The Wind and the Rain,” and incorporated this music throughout the show. Such decisions made for a cohesive, pleasant performance for a Sunday afternoon in the park.

Perhaps one of the most interesting ways in which the director and cast upheld the joyful arc of the show while making use of the context of performance was the overall treatment of Malvolio. This is often one of those dark notes already mentioned. While he is never exactly likable, in other renditions I have seen and in the text itself the other characters’ trickery and humiliation of Malvolio can easily come across as cruel; the humor goes one step too far. This negativity is underscored by his final line, in which he vows to “be revenged on the whole pack of [them]” (5.1.365). The Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks show left none of this lingering doubt amidst our happily ever after, and this was achieved largely by the actors’ full engagement with the audience and the brilliant characterization of the long-suffering, absurdly pedantic, and somehow endearing Malvolio by Jonathan Weir.

In Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theatre, Robert Weimann outlines the difference between what he terms the locus and platea. The
locus is the upper, more focalized part of the stage where action is more separated from the audience, while the platea is the lower part, sometimes even spilling into the seats, where the action is more connected to the spectators and context of playing. Rather than place Malvolio, the focus of our ridicule, on the more separated locus of the stage, nearly all of his actions were given on the platea, either at the very front of the stage or on the ramp and grass in front of it. From the way he addressed the reading of “Olivia’s” love letter directly to the audience, to his swiping of a snack from a playgoer in the front row, to his retreating after his declaration of revenge not backstage and out of sight but fairly deeply into the actual audience, Malvolio was clearly someone we laughed with, not at; an engaging character with his own kind of humor, who was reconciled back into the cast at the end and was never alienated from the silliness of the other characters or the casualness of the setting.

CST went quite far “out of their text” for this Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks performance, abridging many scenes and even translating whole speeches into Spanish, but the results were truly gratifying. By balancing their commitment to Shakespeare with their duty to their audience, Kelly and her cast and crew produced a show that sent both first-time viewers and seasoned veterans away laughing.

Anna Ullmann is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago specializing in Shakespeare and non-Shakespearean early modern drama, early modern historiography, and Marxist literary theory. She received an MA in English literature from Loyola University Chicago and her BA in English and sociology from Kalamazoo College.