Friday, July 1, 2011

Michael5000 vs. Shakespeare: Twelfe Night (Original Practice Shakespeare Festival, Mount Tabor Park, June 19, 2011)

Sir Andrew Ague-Cheek (Tom Mounsey) and Sir Toby
Belch (Noah Goldenberg), permanent houseguests of the Lady Olivia.  Or
so says the program, but I think it had the actors reversed.
The Play: Twelfth Night.  Or what you will, of course.  What the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival (OPSF) will is to call it Twelfe Night, which is apparently the spelling used on one of the Folio dealies or whatever.

Directed by: Brian Allard is the Artistic Director for OPSF.  Kerry Leek was the prompter for our performance.  Read on.

Genre & Setting: Twelfth Night is generally staged as a rollicking comic farce, but it has aspects that can be darkened considerably.  Any sane company putting on Shakespeare in the park is naturally going to go for maximum yucks.

The setting is a fairly generic court somewhere, I don't remember where.  This production was put on in a lovely grotto on the slopes of our neighborhood volcano, a little too near the basketball courts.  The staging consisted of some Olde Englishy tent-like structures that made it so we could see the actors who were onstage and not see the ones who were offstage.

The Gist: Well, let's see.  [oh, SPOILERS!]  There's this count, Orsino, who has the hots for a noblewoman named Olivia.  He keeps sending his new young personal assistant Cesario to her with his messages of love.  But complications ensue when Olivia falls for Cesario instead.  Oh, and Cesario is actually a woman in drag (didn't catch why); her real name is Viola and she has a big awkward crush on Orsino that she can't really act on without blowing her cover.

Olivia's household includes mischievous servants and a couple of alcoholic permanent houseguests, and as a practical joke they make Olivia's steward, Malvolio, think that his boss is trying to woo him.  He falls for the bait and ends up locked away for madness and impertinence.

Meanwhile, Olivia's long-lost twin brother shows up in town for some reason or another.  They look exactly the same, but each thinks the other is dead long ago, and a lesser playwright than Shakespeare would probably milk this for a long sequence of mistaken-identity gags.  As does Shakespeare.

OMG, you're alive!
The Adaptation: The OPSF folks stage their plays according to a theory -- a plausible though by no means proven theory, according to the Blog Shakespearean -- of how plays were staged back in the day.  Here are some of their rules, as cribbed from the program:
Sir Toby talks over
the head of Mrs.5000.
  1. They don't rehearse except to figure out fight scenes and musical numbers, and that only just before the performance.
  2. Actors never see the whole script, only their own lines.  Each actor is expected to study 2 to 8 parts; the configuration of the cast for a given performance is determined on the day of the performance.
  3. The actors carry little scrolls with their lines on them, and are often reading from them.
  4. There is an onstage prompter who, at least at this performance, wore a referee's jersey.  She was available for reference when the actors got confused, but would also blow a whistle to stop action when, for instance, airplanes were going overhead.  At one point she had the audience chant at the basketball players to get them to play more quietly; to my surprise, this actually worked.
Now I had heard about these folks, and to be very honest I was pretty sure I would find all of the above pretty annoying.  So I am pleased to announce that we found the OPSF Twelfe Night to be a terrific good time!  Having the cast deliberately half-prepared lends a feel of improv comedy to the proceedings, but hey!  I like improv comedy well enough!  It's fun!  I still have my doubts to how well the method would work with the tragedies and histories -- you don't necessarily want an air of madcap spontaneity with your Lear -- but with a comedy the half-baking made everything feel fresh and fun.

The grotto setting, and sparse attendance on a day when rain seemed to threaten, made possible a very interactive staging.  At times the performance felt like the opposite of theater in the round, with we audience members being in the center of action taking place out at the periphery, conversations going on literally over our heads.  There was a little bit of mild audience involvement, but the actors seemed good at only picking on people (regulars, I suspect) who didn't mind being singled out.  All in all, it was a lovely afternoon's entertainment, funny and clever and upbeat.

L&TM5K Dork Morgan watches Nik Hoback as Viola as Cesario. 
Clocks In At: I didn't keep track.

Pros: Lively, funny, silly, and cheerful.  But -- and this is an important but -- just because the actors were carrying scrolls doesn't mean they didn't know their craft.  The dialog and action was completely clear and comprehensible throughout.  OPSF has talented actors who know how to speak Shakespearean.

Andrew Bray as "Clowne"
I will add that this is the first live Shakespeare performance I've ever watched where the musical numbers didn't make me cringe.  The finale was an all-cast, full-voice, basically show-tune version of something I assume is in the script, and it was terrific.  I would have left the theater dancing, except we weren't in a theater and needed to round up the blankets and snacks and so on.

Cons: If you don't like improv comedy, you'd struggle with some of the consequences of the approach.  In our production, for instance, the part of Malvolio was played by a woman, and the company never really reached a consensus as to whether the character was a "he" or a "she."  This pushed the gender-bending envelope in surprising ways that even Shakespeare probably did not foresee.

If you have trouble focusing through ambient noise, the park setting would have driven you to distraction.

If you are the sort of person who thinks that Shakespearean text should only be treated with the greatest reverence and dignity -- except that that sort of person doesn't really exist, except as a foil for self-proclaimed innovators (eg. in the critically acclaimed but really quite tedious Dead Poets' Society (1989)).

Prognosis: OPSF is performing Twelfth Night as well as Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer's Night Dream (and not, one notices, Hamlet or Titus Andronicus (although the latter might actually be kind of interesting with an improv adaptation)) through July and August at various parks at and around the City of Roses.  Here's a schedule.  If you are not from these parts but wish to fly in for a performance, contact us for guest room availability.  The Dracunculus has really calmed down.


gl. said...

i don't know if you remember i invited you to this a couple of years ago when "Midsommer" was at laurelhurst park ON midsummer. i was Lion/Bottom/Mustardseed at that performance. it was so much fun! i wish you could have seen it! but i'm glad you had a good time at this one!

Michael5000 said...

I remember! Since time is merely an illusion caused by the insufficiencies of human perception, I'm still hoping to catch it.

gl. said...

you -have- been watching dr. who, haven't you? ;)