REVIEW: Twelfth Night (First Folio)

Indian concept hinders First Folio production

 

Donald Brearley (Toby), Craig Spidle (Feste), Mouzam Mekkar (Maria) & Nick Maroon (Aguecheek)

   
First Folio Theatre presents
   
Twelfth Night
   
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by
Michael F. Goldberg
at
Mayslake Peabody Estate, Oakbrook (map)
Through August 8th  |  tickets: $23-$28  |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

When developing a concept for a Shakespeare production, it is important to keep in mind how the changes will affect the audience’s experience. First Folio and director Melanie Keller (Olivia) & Nick Sandys (Malvolio)Michael F. Goldberg re-imagine Twelfth Night in colonial India, and the concept  comes with a variety of strengths and weaknesses in the outdoor venue.

Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedies, with heroine Viola (Minita Gandhi) disguising herself after a shipwreck separates her from her twin brother Sabastian (Behzad Dabu). As Cesario, Viola finds herself in the employ of Orsino (Anish Jethmalani), a nobleman hopelessly enraptured with the Lady Olivia (Melanie Keller), who falls in love with Cesario, who is really Viola in disguise. Then Sabastian shows up and gets confused with Cesario and everything eventually gets wrapped together in a nice little bow.

The romantic leads don’t seem to have much fire in their performances, with Gandhi and Jethmalani never really establishing a strong chemistry between their characters. Keller fares better in this respect, and I think that is because she isn’t burdened with an Indian dialect.

The choice to have some characters speak in an Indian dialect is unnecessary, and doesn’t add much to the piece besides muddling the diction and verse. It’s impossible to have a strong Shakespeare production without a precise handle on the language, and the dialect restricts the actors, making plots and jokes unclear and making it difficult to follow the action on stage amidst the chirps of crickets and other outdoor distractions. Twelfth Night struggles to really get the momentum moving because of this, and the acting fails to reach the same level of excitement as the design elements.

TwelfthNightPress02That isn’t to say the production isn’t without its charms. The Indian locale does bring an exotic flair to the proceedings, but aesthetics can only go so far. The strongest performances come from Sir Toby (Donald Brearley) and his gang, classic Shakespeare fools that drink and sing and comment on the inanities of the main plot line while relishing in their own silliness. Craig Spidle is a great co-star as the fool Festes, giving his scene’s partners plenty to work off of with his dry wit and perverted sense of humor, and Brearley is quite adept at playing drunk. Nick Sandys dominates the stage as Malvolio, Olivia’s manservant who meets a tragic fate after a prank goes awry. His Malvolio is pretentious, dowdy, and completely clueless, and he has a firmer handle of the language in dialect than his fellow castmates.

From a design perspective, Twelfth Night is spectacular, with the Eastern-inspired costumes and sets creating a beautiful environment for Shakespeare’s comedy to unfold in. Henry Marsh’s score is perhaps the most transformative aspect of the production, filling the outdoor space with the sitar sounds of traditional Hindustani music. The theatre’s Oakbrook location is a beautiful spot for a summer evening of theater, but in an area where sound is going to be a major issue, there shouldn’t be many changes to the language of the piece. By taking the concept too far, the production suffers as a whole, and is just barely saved by above-average supporting performances.

  
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   
Minita Gandhi (Viola) and Anish Jethmalani (Orsino) Donald Brearley (Toby), Craig Spidle (Feste) & Mouzam Mekkar (Maria)
Behzad Dabu (Sabastian), Melanie Keller (Olivia), Anish Jethmaliani (Orsino) & Minita Gandhi (Viola)

All Photos by David Rice.

REVIEW: A Life (Northlight Theatre)

Strong performances aren’t enough

 

Matt Schwader (Desmond), John Mahoney (Drumm), Penny Slusher (Dorothy) and Joanne Dubach (Dolly)

 
Northlight Theatre presents
 
A Life
 
By Hugh Leonard
Directed by BJ Jones
Through April 25 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Everything ought to add up to a fine show at Northlight Theatre with its current production, Irish playwright Hugh Leonard’s 1979 drama, A Life: A world-renowned playwright … excellent performances from a skilled, high-powered cast, headed up by no less an actor than the acclaimed John Mahoney … careful staging from a seasoned director, BJ Jones. Yet it all adds up to a less-than-rewarding experience.

John Mahoney (Drumm) and Linda Kimbrough (Mary) Even the director calls it "a small story." For the little that happens, it’s very slow-moving and very talky — all in a thick Irish brogue that muddies comprehension even as it adds authenticity. Jones, in the program, quotes Leonard: "Being an Irish writer both helps and hampers me. Hampers, because one is fighting the preconceptions of audiences who have been conditioned to expect both feyness and parochial subject matter; helps, because the writer can use a vigorous and poetic idiom which enables him to combine subtly with richness." The strong Irish tone in this production hampers more than it helps.

Leonard, known best for his Tony Award-winning related play, Da, died last year, and I assume that inspired this production, although Jones’ program notes say he’s been "toting around" this play since the ’70s. Jones clearly sees it as a vehicle for Mahoney, who plays the central character, Desmond Drumm.

The play takes Drumm, a secondary character in Leonard’s Da, and puts him front and center. At the end of his life, Drumm is taking stock. He’s spent a career as a civil servant in a tiny Irish town near Dublin, and now, he says, "I need to know what I amount to."

Not much. He’s a bitter, acerbic, judgmental old man. He hasn’t spoken to his closest friends for a half dozen years. His wife is afraid of him. His sense of self-importance, intellectual snobbery and curmudgeonliness have set him at odds with the warm-hearted, informal society in which he lives. He hates his job, but after a poor showing in his youth, he’s never dared reach for the political career he once aspired to.

Robert Belushi (Lar) and Matt Schwader (Desmond) Linda Kimbrough (Mary) and John Mahoney (Drumm)
Seated_ Melanie Keller (Mibs) and Matt Schwader (Desmond).  Standing_ John Mahoney (Drumm) and Linda Robert Belushi (Lar), Matt Schwader (Desmond), Joanne Dubach (Dolly) and Melanie Keller (Mibs) Bradley Armacost and Robert Belushi - Kearns_Lar

The play shifts back and forth between the Drumm of 1977 and the Drumm of 1937, taking with it his wife, Dolly, played alternately by Penny Slusher, as a worried, browbeaten but lovingly supportive spouse, and Joanne Dubach, as an eager young woman whom the priggish younger Drumm, portrayed dynamically by Matt Schwader, shows little interest in.

He’s in love — both ineffectually and patronizingly — with Mary, played strongly in youth by Melanie Keller and even more sharply in later life by Linda Kimbrough. She, however, marries the rather loutish and devil-may-care, but affectionate Lar Kearns, portrayed as a young man by a vigorous Robert Belushi and in older life by a hearty Bradley Armacost.

The two couples nonetheless have maintained a lifetime friendship, broken by a rift six years before the outset of the play. In his stocktaking, Drumm goes to visit the Kearnses, somewhat grudgingly, to make up the quarrel, and put himself back on good terms with Mary, the one person for whom he feels respect. Gradually, Drumm — as self-critical as he is fault-finding of others — comes to realize what he’s shut himself away from.

Yet it doesn’t make us like him any better.

 
Rating: ★★½
 

A free, related panel discussion, "How the Irish Saved Theatre: The Legacy of Irish Plays and Playwrights," takes place at Northlight at noon Saturday, April 10. Reservations required at (847) 679-9501, ext. 3555.

Seated_ Penny Slusher (Dorothy).  Standing_ John Mahoney (Drumm), Linda Kimbrough (Mary) and Bradley

 

            

REVIEW: Jeeves in Bloom (First Folio)

Overblown ‘Jeeves in Bloom’ grows on you

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First Folio Theatre presents:

Jeeves in Bloom

By Margaret Raether
Based on the characters of
P.G. Wodehouse
Directed by
Alison C. Vesely
At the
Mayslake Peabody Estate, Oak Brook
Through Feb. 28 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

In the opening scene of First Folio Theatre’s Jeeves in Bloom, the characters pursue each other around the garden set in a goofy, stylized chase scene so exaggerated it made me want to run out of the theater. The broad, affected campiness Director Alison C. Vesely has imposed on this Equity production really put me off at first, but after a while, the show began to grow on me.

Margaret Raether’s script does P.G. Wodehouse proud. Loosely grafted and considerably pruned from the British author’s 1922 comic novel “Right Ho, Jeeves,” and light as dandelion fluff, this Chicagoland comedy premiere revolves around the amiable but asinine Bertie Wooster, a London man about town, and his keen-witted  gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves. Bertie’s old school-chum Gussie Fink-Nottle, a painfully tongue-tied nerd with a passion for newts, has unaccountably fallen in love jib3with a dippy debutante called Madeline Bassett, a sappily romantic girl who believes in fairies, and appealed to Bertie and Jeeves for advice on wooing her. Meanwhile, Bertie’s intrepid Aunt Dahlia enlists the duo’s aid in stealing her own diamonds as a means of hiding her gambling losses from her irascible and dyspeptic husband, Tom Travers. However, their schemes inadvertently entwine Bertie with Madeline and touch off the Travers’ volatile French chef, Anatole, with disastrous consequences for Tom’s digestion. (James Leaming doubles as the bluff Tom Travers and excitable Anatole so ably that I didn’t realize he wasn’t two actors until only one of him turned up for ovations.)

Kevin McKillip’s portrayal of Gussie Fink-Nottle really won me over. As he moaned, “If only I were a male newt!” and bodily demonstrated the mating habits of the minute amphibians, I twigged to the value of the histrionic approach. McKillip’s expressive face and physical comedy constantly delight.

Christian Gray’s hammed-up rendition of Bertie takes some getting used to. With McKillip, Leaming and Melanie Keller as Madeline all chewing the scenery, one would think Bertie could be more understated. When he’s not spitting chunks of backdrop, Gray comes off admirably Woosterian. And my reaction to his over-the-top mugging is perhaps not entirely Gray’s or the director’s fault.

Chicago-area Wodehouse lovers must be forgiven if the vision of Bertie and Jeeves imprinted indelibly on our brains is that of Mark Richard and the late Page Hearn, who played those roles with brilliantly nuanced humor over some nine years at City Lit Theatre. They’re a tough act to follow.

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Jim McCance, in what seems like a rather small role for the title character, presents an older, stouter and stiffer Jeeves than Hearn’s (or the image drawn in the iconic Penguin paperbacks by Ionicus), but his deadpan tone and facial expressions are impeccable.

However, the real stars of this production are McKillip and Jeannie Affelder as Aunt Dahlia. Although I always picture Dahlia as an Englishwoman of the large, horsey and hearty type, the diminutive Affelder dominates the stage in a smart and subtly comic performance.

Everything about this production shows an attention to detail, from Elsa Hiltner’s period costumes to the stage properties. Scenic Designer Angela Miller has beautifully integrated a garden terrace into the high-ceiling event hall of the historic Mayslake Peabody Estate, complete with working fountain, statuary and realistic plants.

So, by the time that thorny opening chase scene was reprised at the end of the first act, I could take it without wincing.

Though more of an overblown rose than a tight bud of comedy, “Jeeves in Bloom” is a fun and enjoyable show.

Rating: ★★★

Note: The performance is 2½ hours, with intermission.

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