By John Quinn
This critic has enjoyed an embarrassment of Shakespearean riches this weekend. I have seen an adaptation of The Bard’s first, flawed tragedy, followed last night by the Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s elegant romp through one of his best comedies, his last for many years. “Twelfth Night” is a frothy, mid-summer night’s dream, a show so disarming that the playwright invites you to make of it “What You Will.”
Remember the giddy emotions surrounding the turn of the 21th century? One imagines those hard-partying Elizabethans were in the same mood at the turn of the 17th. For Shakespeare, the party ended early; in 1601, his patron, the Earl of Southampton, was imprisoned and nothing seemed funny anymore. But this play was already finished; its first performance on record was Jan. 6, 1602, the “twelfth night” after Christmas and the traditional end of a rollicking holiday season.
“Twelfth Night” is a rollicking play. Shakespeare was at the top of his game, master of the language and wise commentator on the human condition. This work contains a traditional plot, about romance among the upper class, and a very rich subplot played out by those commonly referred in scripts as “clowns.”
The romance is driven by one of Shakespeare’s favorite devises, mistaken identity. The subplot revolves around a conspiracy to hoist an overly proud fussbudget on his own petard. MSF artistic director Janice L. Blixt, the show’s director, has worked a wonder; in mining the text, she unearthed comic gems otherwise buried in the romantic scenes. The result is an effervescent, laugh-filled delight.
Two twins, Sebastian (Wesley Scott) and Viola (Melanie Keller), are shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria. Separated, each fears the other has drowned. Viola, a woman alone in a man’s world, seeks protection by disguising herself as a man and seeking employment in the bachelor household of Orsino, Duke of Illyria (David Blixt). “Cesario” quickly gains favor with the Duke, who sends “him” to a widowed countess, Olivia (Janet Haley). Orsino is in love, and hopes his servant can coax Olivia out of her self-imposed seven years of mourning. The catch? The disguised Viola has fallen for Orsino and Olivia falls for “Cesario” at first sight. The unlikely triangle becomes a wrecked tangle when Sebastian appears, and the twins become, “One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons.”
Meanwhile, a couple of ne’er-do-wells are sponging off the Countess’ largess. They are her drunken sot of an uncle, Sir Toby Belch (John Byrnes) and his cowardly crony, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Caleb Probst), who hopes to win the fair Olivia for himself. Their rude behavior arouses the ire of Olivia’s puritanical steward, Malvolio (Paul Riopelle), a man as bad-tempered as his name implies. Urged on by Maria, Olivia’s lady-in-waiting (Amy Montgomery), the revelers conspire with festive fool Feste (Alan Ball), and fool-in-training Fabian (Brandon St. Clair Saunders) to trick Malvolio into believing the countess is in love with HIM. The tighter the twists, the happier the ending; all is sorted out and everybody lives happily ever after – well, maybe not Malvolio.
The various designers have given Janice L. Blixt a beautiful canvas upon which to paint Shakespeare’s story. Much of the fun rests in the fact that “Twelfth Night” is set in “once upon a time”; the designers designate no particular place or time. Olivia uses a ballpoint and dollar store notebook; Feste is equipped with a portable karaoke machine. Melanie Schuessler’s costumes are a passing nod to Regency, but are in playful colors and tailoring. Jeromy Hopgood’s scenic design defines a dream-like space; gauzy, flowing curtains that Diane Fairchild’s colorful, pastel lighting plays over. But the outstanding technical achievement is the incorporation of original songs by Kate Hopgood, festival composer, using lyrics adapted from various Shakespearean works. They are absolutely beautiful, the more so that the thoroughly modern adaptations so well reflect the old themes.
That’s just the back drop; in this show, the players are the thing. “Twelfth Night” is notable for a tremendously talented ensemble, which has performed a simple, yet marvelous trick. By simply letting Shakespeare speak through them, letting his words pour over an audience like summer honey, every line and character is as enchanting as they were 400 years ago. The playwright’s legacy is secured by those who perform him so well.
Some of the most beautiful lines in Shakespeare’s works are given to Viola in “Twelfth Night.” Melanie Keller delivers each with sincerity and passion, but shows she has the chops for broad comedy. In this production, it’s Viola, not Orsino, who speaks the opening lines of Act I and Keller sets the bar high for the performances that follow.
It’s easy to see why John Byrnes and Caleb Probst are instant audience favorites. Their intensely physical performances are a show in and of themselves. But if you must “send in the clowns,” let it be Alan Ball. He sings, he dances, he juggles – but even deep in the tomfoolery, he brings subtle dignity to a character dear to Shakespeare’s heart, the Wise Fool.
If there is a moral found in “Twelfth Night,” it may be “carpe diem” – “seize the day.” Whether the magic of love or the satisfaction in serving up just desserts, life’s pleasures are as fleeting as good weather in Michigan and we must enjoy them while we may. MSF gifts us with one more pleasure to enjoy.
Michigan Shakespeare Festival at Potter Center’s Baughman Theatre on the campus of Jackson Community College, 2111 Emmons Road, Jackson. Plays in repertory through Aug. 10. 2 hours, 50 minutes. $12-36. 517-796-8600. http://www.Michiganshakespearefestival.com