THEATER REVIEW: Two Plays Diverged
By Montague Gammon III
An exquisitely crafted – edited, staged, directed and acted – one act version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night highlighted the bard-rich final week of June.
That open air, lower Granby Street collaborative effort of the Workshop Theatre Group, Todd Rosenleib Dance, Governor’s School for the Arts Theatre Department, and the Downtown Norfolk Council joined an ambitious but erratic Shakespeare in the Grove (TCC Chesapeake) Midsummer Night’s Dream to give Hampton Roads an extraordinary outpouring of iambic pentameter.
Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night – the comedy is subtitled “What You Will” for unspecified reasons that have called scholars into contentious circles for ages – when his acting company included a pair of talented twin boys, or at least two boys who strongly resembled each other. (All female roles in his time were played by boys.)
Twins Viola and Sebastian, separated when their ship founders off the coast of Illyria, presume one another drowned. Viola disguises herself as a man for her own safety, and enters into the service of the Duke Orsino.
Of course, romantic comedy conventions compel her to fall head over heels in love with her young, single and heterosexual employer, to whom she presents herself as a young fellow called Cesario.
The Duke has a grand and unrequited crush – naturally he thinks it’s true love – on the reclusive Countess Olivia. She has sequestered herself while mourning the death of her brother, and has refused to listen to more of the Duke’s entreaties, or even to meet the messengers who bring them.
Well, anyone who cannot anticipate that “Cesario” will not only make his way into Olivia’s company, but almost immediately into her heart, hasn’t been exposed to many of those aforesaid romantic comedy conventions.
So … the disguised Viola loves Orsino who (believes he) loves Olivia who loves the young man (she believes is) Cesario who, everyone in the audience knows, is really Viola who can’t reveal her true self to either of the two young nobles while she woos on behalf of the man she loves the woman who loves the man she pretends to be ….
Olivia’s household includes a bevy of relatives and employees/servants whose antics shape and decorate comic sub-plots.
Once Viola’s twin Sebastian – who just happens to be dressed EXACTLY like “Cesario” – puts in an appearance, the plot both thickens and roils with mistaken identities, and with what, if not gender bending, is certainly serious warping of assumptions about male and female stereotypes and the origins of affection.
‘Twas all the more so in 1601 when a boy actor played a female character who masqueraded as a young man.
Clarity was director Ricardo Melendez’s singular achievement here. His condensation of five acts into one lost not one whit of the play’s essentials; every one of his actors understood and communicated exactly what their characters wanted and why, and how everything fit together.
Melendez took the part of Olivia’s self-satisfied and pompous steward Malvolio. Madison Reiske was Viola and Tyler McAnney, Sebastian. Carter Horton played Orsino (inexplicably listed as a Count in the cast list), and Sarah Robotham had the role of Olivia. Steve J. Earle played Sir Toby Belch to Andrew Fortman’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Daniel Kantrowitz’s Fabian and Christa Jones’ Maria.
Justin Libbey was cast as Orsino’s almost forgotten servant Valentine, C.J. Vogt had the two roles of sailor Antonio and a (Privateer? Mercenary?) Captain, and Jafar Cooper made brief appearances as a Officer of the law and as a Priest.
A good job was done by all, individually and in ensemble.
After years of brilliant directing and acting, Melendez finally did show himself to be, in a small way, fallible; he flat got the fight pitting Sebastian against Olivia’s genially alcoholic kinsman Belch and the foolish knight Sir Andrew wrong. Totally backwards.
Sebastian is supposed to beat the stuffing out of both of them – it’s in the text, Ricardo!
When Olivia comes to Sebastian’s defense and orders Belch and Aguecheek to stop ganging up on Sebastian (her beloved Cesario, to her eyes), it’s supposed to be funny. Sebastian needs protection as much as Mike Tyson in a bar fight.
Other than that quibble, this Twelfth Night was exemplary, and inaugurated what one hopes will be frequent open air Shakespeare shows from this consortium of Norfolk’s civic and theatrical communities.
BTW, why doesn’t anyone ever give Aguecheek the facial tic his name implies?
At TCC/Chesapeake, the well regarded, well established Shakespeare in the Grove had a rougher time with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Good bits, grand looks and infectious energy mixed with empty declamation, unfocussed flailing and contrived emotional displays in this pun filled, familiar story of lovers lost in an enchanted wood where fairies fight and frolic, and amateur actors rehearse a play-within-a-play.
Evan Gardner’s absolutely perfect, self-congratulatory interpolation after his character of Snug, an insecure novice actor, “nailed” a lion’s roar, and his similar moments afterwards.
Alex Smith’s crispy energetic cross-stage horse ride, emblematic of the verve he brought to his role as prankster sprite Puck.
Director Trey Clarkson’s clever introduction of the usually unseen Indian Boy (Jacie Murray), over whom Fairy King Oberon and his Queen Titania squabble.
Generally praiseworthy stuff:
Clarkson’s understanding that one can take liberties with text, if such liberties are taken coherently and intelligently and are consistent with the text as finally used.
Clarkson’s idea of presenting the supernatural characters in a stylized manner, the mortals in a naturalistic way, and Puck as a conceptual link between them.
Catherine Gendell’s native glamor as Titania, arguably THE role she was born to play.
DaQuan Phillips’ look of cold command as the haughty and powerful Fairy King Oberon.
Mary Wheaton’s believable portrayal of the young, brave, but ofttimes hurt girl Hermia.
Ed Palmer’s neatly modulated tone as the know-it-all amateur actor Bottom.
Most especially, Meg Murray’s costume designs.
Gendell was seriously under directed, probably because Clarkson thought less experienced players more needed his attention.
Phillips likewise; there should have been much more to Oberon than an intimidating presence.
No follow through on hints of Oberon as a voodoo practitioner.
We got the Indian Boy on stage, but nothing much came of him being there.
Puck’s energy was unflagging to a fault, rarely modulated but when he cowered before Oberon.
Big chunks of park-and-bark; actors standing stock still, front and center, to speak AT the audience.
When in doubt of why you exit, chase someone yelling his or her name.
Actors who decided “I WILL SHOW this audience how angry/how fearsome/etcetera I can look!,” whom Clarkson allowed to indicate emotions and to pose, rather than to create characters.
One more good thing about both productions: You did not need to pay your money before your took your choice. Admission was free to both.
Twelfth Night, or What You Will
Shakespeare @ The Plot
Granby at Main Streets, Norfolk
Ran through June 30.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Tidewater Community College and the Chesapeake Fine Arts Commission
Shakespeare in the Grove
Bells Mill Road at Cedar Road, Chesapeake
Ran through June 30.