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A Pretty-Much Perfect TWELFTH NIGHT at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

A Pretty-Much Perfect TWELFTH NIGHT at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

Now through October 23rd!

There's so much to like in Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's current revival of Twelfth Night, a production that succeeds in big things and small, that I can't imagine any spectator walking away unsatisfied. Whether we're talking about the first thing we see, Tim Jones's set with sails that turn into projection screens among other things, or what we enjoy after the action starts, like the inventive and effective line readings, the beautifully thought-through and timed stage business, or Ian Gallanar's direction that transparently gives equal thought to every character onstage at every moment, this production is a triumph.

When a play is done so exquisitely, you tend to stand back from it and see the play itself in a new light. I certainly did.

I was struck while watching with the realization that even among Shakespeare's many far-fetched comedies, this one must have been an extreme outlier on the absurdity spectrum. As in many other Shakespeare plays, the plot is built on the premise (not impossible, but unlikely) that a female character can so convincingly dress as a man that everyone else credits the imposture, but it doesn't stop there. Shakespeare then adds to it the Comedy of Errors "identical twin" premise, i.e. that twins, each believing the other dead, might operate in the same environment in mutual ignorance of each other's survival, inadvertently confusing everything around them (more probable, but still unlikely in the real world). Shakespeare then tops it off with something that he probably made up, not likely having ever heard of it in real life, identical twins of opposite sexes. (Scientists have recently announced that it occurs among only .1 percent of identical twins.) In other words, this farrago, which builds on all three absurdities, is so improbable that it passes the vanishing point of possibility altogether - and everyone, including Shakespeare, knows it. As the character Fabian puts it: "If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction." (Shakespeare may have inserted the line to beat the audience to the punch.)

We all know that it is absurd, and that may be the exact reason it works so well. Our motivation as an audience is not to witness verisimilitude but its opposite: a wild flight into realms of optimistic fancy where even most impossible lovely dreams come true. The absence of fairies and deities, magic potions, spells and enchantments (such as Shakespeare resorts to in some of his other comedies), just underlines it. We are being invited to revel in the fantasy that our actual workaday world could sometimes render up outcomes so funny and so blissful. And so we end up with three marriages at the end, as well as the blissful reunion of the twins after they had each been persuaded to give the other up as lost at sea. Love is rendered invincible, and even death is in effect reversed. Not to mention that a character who would rain on everyone's parade if he could is soundly humiliated, while the roisterers and practical jokesters who stand in for the unrestrained id in us all are vindicated. Nothing, we are led to feel, will ever go wrong again.

It is a superb fantasy, yet Shakespeare is too canny to leave us quite caught up in it. Very gently, in a closing song sung by Feste the fool, he eases us back into the more disappointing reality we all know too well, with a refrain that reminds us that "the rain it raineth every day." That's life, but what a fantasy perpetual sunshine was while it lasted! And actually, more than one of Feste's songs is melancholy. It's intriguing that the character most formally dedicated to creating mirth and trickery is tasked with injecting a little bit of sobriety and sadness into this joyous proceeding; I'm not sure I understand it, but it seems to work.

And maybe that's why a cast and a direction with no obvious weak spots matters so much: there's a fantasy to maintain even with the Fool tapping on the brakes a little. A show that wants to sell us on fantasies of immortality and perfect love and humiliation for the naysayers had better be just about perfect. By all means gild the lily a little, as, for instance, with the fourth-wall violations, the places where the invisible barrier convention places between the performers and the audience isn't respected, like moments when the characters sidle up to the apron and single out an audience member and silently demand that he or she perform some task, or where a character unexpectedly joins the audience, eating popcorn and watching the show with gusto.

The cast comes well-stocked with seasoned performers we've grown familiar with through CSC and also through many other local theater companies. Lizzi Albert, whom we've seen at CSC, for instance as Anne Boleyn in Anne of the Thousand Days, here plays Viola, the shipwrecked gentlewoman trying to make her way disguised as a man, dealing with her employer, a Duke whom she crushes on, though he's fatuously determined to pursue an unattainable woman. In fact, Viola's charged with advancing the Duke's cause with the woman herself, in the face of that woman taking a somewhat amorous shine to Viola's own male alter ego, Cesario. As if that weren't bad enough, Viola finds Cesario challenged to a duel as a man would be, inconveniently for a woman without fencing experience. For a commonsensical young woman, all this is a lot to ask, and Albert's grimaces and reactions enable us to see this absurd situation through her eyes. She's in on the joke, we're in on the joke; a pity for her no one else is.

Her opposite number, the Duke Orsino (Quincy Vicks), a veteran of productions at Baltimore Center State, CSC, and Strand Theatre, is encouraged to play up his character's capricious and captious side, probably more than any other Orsino I've seen. The lines certainly permit it, and it made me wonder if Shakespeare really meant us to take Orsino as quite so shallow. Maybe he did, on the theory that romantic yearnings make shallow folk of us all.

The object of Orsino's quest, Olivia, is portrayed by Elana Michelle, pictured above, who's been very busy at CSC of late, including as Jane Seymour to Lizzi Albert's Anne Boleyn in Anne of the Thousand Days. Michelle's mission is to portray crumbling resolve, as her character successively abandons a vow to abjure the company of men, then a resolve not to hear Orsino's suit, and finally a resolution not to confess her passion for the supposed Cesario. It's an absurd role, and the way Michelle tackles it is the way the actor charged with portraying Orsino usually approaches that role, i.e. surrendering to the irrationalities of passion while intellectually aware of the absurdity of the position. This Olivia comes across as embarrassed but thrilled, and I loved the sheer joy that came into her face at the moments of crumblement, if that's a word. (And it should be if it isn't.)

Viola's brother Sebastian, the fourth principal in this love tetrahedron, was supposed to be portrayed by Ian Charles, but for some reason on press night the role was filled by understudy William Kinka, a younger talent. It's a somewhat easier role, because all it requires is for the character to wander deeper and deeper into the morass of mistaken identities, telling the truth but mostly loving it that no one pays any attention. Kinna gives the role all it needs. Obviously, I can't speak to what Mr. Charles might do.

And speaking of veterans, the cast also includes Gregory Burgess, whom I first saw with CSC a decade ago as Shylock, and have witnessed as Falstaff and Scrooge, among others, in intervening years. Here, as Sir Toby Belch, Olivia's dissipated and rascally uncle, Burgess just does what he knows so well to do.

Kathryne Daniels, now a member of the CSC company whom I've seen here and in community theater often enough to call her a veteran at this point, is superb as Maria, an often underplayed role that requires some subtlety. She's a bit of a den mother to the roisterers, but also a senior responsible member of Olivia's household, which means she's a bit torn, and knows she really shouldn't be pulling the dirty trick she engineers on Malvolio, the household killjoy, but she just can't suppress the joy of the joke. She's got to be mature in manner, but still the high school smartass at heart. Or you can put the requirements in the opposite order if you like. Either way, Daniels gives us both conflicting halves of the picture.

And then there's Ron Heneghan as the aforementioned Malvolio, Olivia's steward. He's been a regular with CSC since at least the middle of the previous decade, most memorable recently as Henry IV. His Malvolio is a revelation, and without doubt the finest I've seen. A prisoner of his own self-righteousness and vanity, dressed like a butler from the earliest episodes of Downton Abbey, making his every move with eerily obnoxious precision, and then, after the trick is played, changing his manner and his dress in an utterly ghastly way (see the picture above), and finally reduced to broken, impotent rage, he presents us with an exemplary tryant in the process of disintegration. He would be worth the price of admission alone. As would the costumes designed for him by Kristina Lambdin.

Not to be overlooked is Laura Malkus, described in the program notes as "a local small stage veteran," who gets more out of the role of Fabian than I've ever seen before. In the modernized setting, Fabian is promoted or demoted (you choose) from "a gentleman" to "Olivia's driver," a welcome innovation. It gives us the chance to see the character in an antique chauffeur's duster (fun in itself) and provides some context for his presence in the household. Like Maria, her Fabian seems a bit more mature, at least in temperament, than Fabian's fellow-roisterers but no less appalled by Malvolio. Somehow Malkus has made Fabian's thinking and personality more clear than I've ever perceived them before. It would be good to see her in additional professional productions. (Full disclosure: Malkus participated in a YouTube reading of a short play of mine.)

And even that doesn't exhaust the pedigreed acting talent on display here. There's also Jose Guzman, a frequent CSC cast-member, whose Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the somewhat dim, somewhat cowardly, but endlessly loquacious companion of Toby, is hopelessly pursuing Olivia's hand. George Michael Harris, as Feste, Olivia's fool, brings a certain standup sensibility to the role, not surprising in light of his reported membership in The Baltimore Improv Group. You can see it cropping out when Feste is called on to read out loud a letter involved in the practical joke on Malvolio, or to pose as a physician ministering to Malvolio's imputed insanity. In Harris' rendition, these are routines, bits; it's perfect. Improv infusing Shakespeare is a fine notion.

The main reason I've emphasized the depth of experience in this field of actors is not that it would leave the reader expecting actorly competence (although it should), but to note that this is the twentieth anniversary celebration of the company, and this show is a sort of homecoming for members of the company from over the years. Many of the people involved in the production were actually involved in the company's inaugural show, also Twelfth Night. For instance, that rendering, like the current one, was directed by Ian Gallanar. Daniel O'Brien, now technical director, was the Feste in the original rendition. Producing Executive Director Lesley Malin was the original Maria. So this production celebrates longevity in its own right, but in so doing provides a vehicle for convening a group of performers who have, over time, collectively worked together pretty well. There's a definite feeling in the air resulting from that.

It's also worth noting that the play itself is a celebration. The title refers to the fact that it was meant to be performed to observe Epiphany, the twelfth day and culmination of the Christmas season. And inside the play, as in most of Shakespeare's comedies, the characters are celebrating at the end.

A show that celebrates celebration is itself a cause for celebration.

So go and uh, celebrate. Absolutely not to be missed.

Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare, directed by Ian Gallaner, presented through October 23 by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, at 7 South Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. Tickets $24-$69, at www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com , or 410-244-8570.

Photo Credit: Caitlin Moore Photography



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