By CHRISTA McINTYRE
If Shakespeare and his inner Falstaff wanted to create a play for everyone, his democratizing agent would be a joyful and laughing audience, ready for any bet. In spring, the daffodils are nodding their heads, tulips are in open bloom, and wisteria reach past the gables. It’s an excellent time for Post5’s springlike new Twelfth Night, because with what you will (Shakespeare’s subtitle for his fantasy), love, or the laughing at it, will trump us all.
Cassandra Boice directs a seamless and contemporary presentation of this eternally hopeful comedy. We’re greeted by a 1980s Miami background, where the clown Feste is a Gilligan or other heavy-lidded participant in the play (see recent laws passed about marijuana use in the state of Oregon). Throw away the canticle: a ukulele and kid’s accordion serenade us with The Beatles’ Let it Be. The aristocratic Olivia’s maid-in-waiting, Maria (played by Tori Padellford) arrives on the scene in a very polyester uniform, and what we see in ads about maids’ uniforms is played true.
Here lies the point and distinction of Post5’s interpretation: Boice and company take a play more than 400 years old and make it relevant and cryingly funny, marching the best parts of our humorous icons onto the stage in a very affordable seduction.
We can guess while reading or watching Shakespeare’s plays at his love of mythology and travels to distant lands. As with Herodotus, we listen for his insights on human values and understanding of others, even in the most fantastical of tales. And Twelfth Night is fantastical. A brave Duke Orsino, having failed to win Olivia’s hand, lies in melancholic turbulence. Overcome and seemingly unable to manage his kingdom, he still chooses a good and strange confidante in the recently arrived Cesario. Cesario is actually Viola, twin to Sebastian, whom Viola/Cesario believes drowned at sea. Viola dons a man’s appearance and becomes the voice of love for Count Orsino as he presses his suit for Lady Olivia’s hand. All of Cesario/Viola’s speeches are meant for the love of Orsino, even as she strives to win his current object of affection, Olivia. Olivia, meanwhile, remains in mourning for her brother. Sebastian, who has not drowned after all, returns to shore and is mistaken for his sister, who is pretending to be a man. Meanwhile, a troupe of sycophants settle into bouts of undisturbed drinking, bedding, and the occasional preemptive song. Shakespeare presents his audience with a strange and hybrid confluence of circumstances on an unknown island, with little cultural reference: we just have to understand a basic hierarchy of lady, duke, fool, maid, etc. It all gets deliciously muddled: A maid takes a man, a maid as a young man would like to take a man, a man would like to take a lady, a man took a maid many times, the maid of the lady sets out to take the lady’s man, and a man and maid of the lady set out to take a man who would like to take the lady, forging letters that expose the heart of all, ad infinitum and bee pollen. Because in the end, love triumphs all. If this seems consumptive and confusing, then you have not had a friend or fallen in love.
However, like the brooding Malvolio, you may have put on your yellow stockings and garters.
Jeff Gorham, as Sir Toby, cousin and leech to Lady Olivia, deftly lays out all that there is about being a drunk. He bounds onstage in an obvious pillowed stomach and torn-astray tie that becomes a physical fixation. Within a few minutes we reach the anchor Boice has given him – his Toby-meter, the rhythm of his consistent drinking from the bottle.
Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Stan Brown), Sir Toby’s Bertie Wooster-minded accomplice, is red-cheeked and beauty-marked, a parody of his own class. He matches scene for scene the virility of the manchild with an empty optimism.
If, in Shakespeare, the point is always on point and made well about love, Jessica Tidd as Cesrio/Viola captures unconfused a man and maid. With her sweeping doe-gaze of wide-eyed openness and a little John Travolta knee across the floor, she makes us believe wholeheartedly in the young and attractive Cesario giving counsel that only a woman in love may give: throwback kicks, arched eyebrows and those “yes, this is love” poses. There is that.
And she plays Olivia as seamlessly as, back in the day, a man (rather, a boy) would have. This Olivia is a rose of Spanish Harlem, ample in skirt and pointed knee. She meditates upon her chosen, fragrant and fond in her focus to attain the person she shall have: flippant as in nature, yet becoming sure as an anchor toward the end. Chip Sherman, further complicating matters as a man playing Olivia, gives us a lady very capable of choosing and taking her man, as all ladies should. As Feste becomes a Venice Beach rescuee, so Olivia is an Eartha Kitt.
Traditionally, Olivia’s man-in-waiting Malvolio is played as a stuffed-shirt Puritan, a straight man countering the incessant and boorish charms of the drunks and fools lining up at his mistress’s door. Yet he, too, is not disinclined to the temptations of nature, and the straight man becomes his own foil – or at least, we believe so until the end. Ty Boice presents Malvolio as a Carol Burnett asexual butterfly with the acrid wit of a Tim Curry. He shakes and stutters and gives a gap-toothed smile as his transformation takes shape.
In such little touches, Cassandra Boice’s intelligent direction comes through. She translates Shakespeare’s stock characters into figures from our own cultural experience. At first we laugh at every moment of Malvolio’s yellow bondaged legs, until his last monologue, when both Boices drive what has been laughable into true compassion. Malvolio, perhaps the only character in the play in whom an honesty resides, is driven to address his assault – and for the audience, ridicule becomes compassion.
Post5, as with a few other small ensembles that push the envelope in art, makes theater a living experience and opens Portland’s cultural dialogue by being affordable. The theater is small, but ambitious. At moments in Twelfth Night when the plot is rushed, and the supporting cast is less consistent than the leads. None of these small points should make you miss one of the funniest productions of the season.
Twelfth Night continues through May 16 at Post 5 Theatre 1666 S.E. Lambert St. Ticket and schedule information are here.