Review: "Twelfth Night" at Chicago Shakes

Twelfth Night

by William Shakespeare

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

In one of Shakespeare’s most famous comic scenes, Malvolio (Larry Yando, left), believing he has found a love letter from his mistress Olivia, fantasizes about his life as her husband, to the amusement of the eavesdropping Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Dan Kenney), Fabian (Dan Sanders-Joyce), and Sir Toby Belch (Scott Jaeck). In the years after the play premiered, the character of Malvolio was so popular that the play was often titled Malvolio and abridged to feature him. William Shakespeare will turn 445 this week and, as Chicago is celebrating with “Talk Like Shakespeare Day,” daring productions of two of the Bard’s best comedies can be seen here in the hippest theatre city in the country. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre is a decently straightforward production with one major exception: some members of the audience might want to bring ponchos. Combining Shakespeare with Sea World, director Josie Rourke’s Twelfth Night adds a wet level of fun to the already hilarious play.

Shakespeare’s plot, if you recall, centers around the shipwrecked Viola (Michelle Beck), who finds herself stuck in the fantastical Illyria and disguises herself as a male page for the local Duke Orsino (Mark Montgomery) and then goes on to fall in love with him. The duke, though, is in love with Olivia (Karen Aldridge), who actually ends up falling for the Duke’s effeminate page. Of course, hilarity ensues and the misadventures of a few drunks, clowns, and a particularly rigid steward punctuate the romantic chaos.

The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre imported Josie Rourke and scenic/costume designer Lucy Osborne from Britain, where both of them are acclaimed for their work in classical and contemporary theatre. For Twelfth Night, Osborne filled the thrust stage with 7,000 gallons of water allowing the actors to dive, swim, and slip amidst some of Shakespeare’s wittiest dialogue. Upstage of the thrust, dock-inspired platforms and walls form a giant heart. The production isn’t really anachronistic; the characterizations and costumes are period (although everyone sports bare feet to avoid slipping). Unfortunately, why they chose to set the play in a pool is not really made clear; the wet envisioning of Illyria doesn’t really illuminate much in the text. Rourke and her actors find brilliant ways to use the water, though, including water-wings, inflated pants, and dousing the first few rows. So, with the exception of an accidental trip or two, the pier on top of a (Navy) pier never actually detracts from the play in a significant way.

Under the watchful eye of her household steward Malvolio (Larry Yando, right), and her gentlewoman Maria (Ora Jones, second from left), Olivia (Karen Aldridge, left) listens to the clown Feste (Ross Lehman, second from right) as he tries to make her laugh. The forces of rule—the denial of desire and the refusal of ordinary pleasure, as represented by Malvolio—suit Olivia in her mourning. In Early Modern England, the Twelfth Night of Christmas was celebrated as a festival of misrule, with masques and revels presented as entertainment. Shakespeare’s play does not indicate the time of year, but the spirit of the holiday permeates the play. Enjoying the pleasures of misrule and uninhibited appetite, Sir Toby Belch (Scott Jaeck, left), Maria (Ora Jones, center), and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Dan Kenney, right) carouse late into the night, and devise a cruel prank to punish the censorious Malvolio. Viola (Michelle Beck, front), who disguises herself as “Cesario,” is sent by Duke Orsino with members of his court (from left, Jonathan Helvey, Brandon Ford, Edgar Miguel Sanchez) to woo Lady Olivia, unleashing a series of secret and inopportune desires. Shakespeare often wrote cross-dressing comic heroines, including Portia, Imogen and Rosalind, but only Viola has the distinction of meeting the man she loves after she assumes her male disguise.

Although the soggy setting doesn’t necessarily reveal anything new about Shakespeare’s words, the performances revel in the language. Aldridge makes a fascinating Olivia, ranging from frosty indifference to giddiness. Her unexpected choices allow her to join in the fun. The adorable Beck navigates Viola beautifully, often appealing to the audience for support regarding her bizarre situation. The gang of drunks, knaves, and fools is a major joy of this production. Scott Jaeck’s boisterous convincing performance as the swaggering, constantly inebriated Sir Toby Belch makes one wonder what liquid exactly is in the mugs and Ross Lehman is hysterical as the fool Feste, who seems very aware that he may actually be the wisest person in Illyria. A delightfully narcissistic Larry Yando is their fun-squashing victim Malvolio. The motley crew functions beautifully as a group and provides a ridiculous subplot to the considerably more sober romantic confusion.

A few of the moments fall flat because actors are timid to trust the inherent humor in the language and push the comedy too hard. Dan Kenney as the blockheaded Andrew Aguecheek is one of the guiltiest, although he makes up for it somewhat whenever he trips into the pool.

Twelfth Night begins with three brief scenes in three locations on the coast of Illyria, each introducing a different thread of the complex plotting of the play. In the first scene, pleasure is mixed with pain in both Duke Orsino’s (Mark L. Montgomery, center) love of music and the Countess Olivia, who, in mourning for her brother, refuses to entertain the Duke’s offer of love. Like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night begins sadly. Viola (Michelle Beck, center), washed ashore after a shipwreck and believing her twin brother Sebastian drowned, appeals to the Sea Captain (John Lister, right) for help disguising herself as a boy. The story of long-lost twins whose unrecognized reunion causes endless confusion has remained a convention of drama since the earliest Roman comedies. Responding to the deaths of their brothers, Olivia (Karen Aldridge, left) and Viola (Michelle Beck, right) are a study in contrasts. Life-affirming, Viola dresses as her brother and falls in love with the handsome and rich Duke Orsino. Olivia withdraws from the world, until she is unveiled by the Duke’s page “Cesario”—and, in that exchange, falls in love.

Rourke’s soaked imagining of Illyria isn’t too crazy of a concept; it does work way better than setting it in outer space or in the ‘80’s. However, the supposed metaphor of the water is never very clear; it doesn’t really function as some sort of transformative, mysterious, or magical element. Luckily, Twelfth Night is a fun script, and splashing around in water is really fun. What Rourke does prove is that pool parties, even Renaissance-era ones, are always a blast.

Rating: «««½

All pictures beautifully photographed by Liz Lauren.  A full list of the cast and the creative team can be found by clicking on “Read more”.

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Chicago Theater Recommendations (July 2008)

A summary of theatre recommendations from the Tribune (Trib), Sun-Times (ST), Chicago Theatre Blog (CTB), and TimeOut Chicago (TO).   

 

Play   (Producers and/or Location)

Recommended By

Campaign Supernova (Second City etc.) Trib, ST
Cirque Shanghai Gold (Navy Pier)   Trib, TO, CTB
Dead Man’s Cellphone (Steppenwolf)   Trib, CTB
Hizzoner (Beverly Arts Center) Trib, CTB
Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night                  (Theo Ubique – No Exit Cafe) Trib, CTB, ST
Jersey Boys (Broadway in Chicago) Trib, ST, CTB, TO
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (Gift Theatre) Trib, TO
The Mark of Zorro (Lifeline Theatre) Trib, TO, ST
Superior Donuts (Steppenwolf) Trib, CTB, TO
Wicked (Broadway in Chicago) Trib, CTB, ST
Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story (Drury Lane Oakbrook) Trib, ST
The Lion in Winter (Writers’ Theatre) Trib, TO, ST
Relatively Close (Victory Gardens) CTB
Kooza (Cirque du Soleil – United Center) TO, CTB, ST, Trib
Gutenberg! The Musical!  (Royal George Theatre) TO, CTB
Lookingglass Alice (Lookingglass Theatre) TO
Funk It Up About Nuthin’ (Chicago Shakes) TO
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Queer Tale (MidTangent) TO, CTB
Ren Faire! (Prp Thtr) TO
Hay Fever (Circle Theatre) ST
Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Goodman Theatre) ST
Jekyll & Hyde (Boho Theatre) ST, CTB
I Am Who I Am (The Story of Teddy Pendergrass)
(Black Ensemble Theater)
ST, TO
A Steady Rain (Royal George) ST, CTB
Co-Ed Prison Sluts (Annoyance Theatre) Trib
A Rabbit’s Tale (Millennium Park) Trib