The Portland Shakespeare Project launched its fourth season with Twelfth Night on Saturday at Artists Repertory Theatre. That’s a simple enough sentence, especially in Shakespeare-besotted Portland. Portland’s acquaintance with Shakespeare is deep enough that I don’t have to append a descriptor to the title—”the rom-com Twelfth Night,” say, if I wanted to be just the tiniest bit cheeky. And maybe a bit wrong.
Not totally wrong: Twelfth Night IS a romantic comedy, no doubt. And it’s other things, too, a lot of other things. But it takes a very clear understanding of the existential predicaments of its characters by the actors to coax an appearance from those wonderful “other things.” Because otherwise the flow of words they generate just rushes on by.
So, the REAL lead of this account: Portland Shakespeare Project opened a Twelfth Night on Saturday that is about as transparent and understandable as we can expect of a play from the very early 17th century, when English was written and understood in a very different way. Even a familiar one such as Twelfth Night. And this clarity frees our (we in the audience) imagination to consider and delight in the possibilities of the play, consider alternate readings safely, lose ourselves in a moment, confident that we’ll regain our footing, no matter how spongy the ground beneath us—the language—becomes.
The clarity I’m talking about isn’t unheard of here. Oregon Shakespeare Festival makes a point of delivering an accessible Shakespeare, for example, though sometimes the pantomiming games they play alongside the words are distracting. Still, the company regularly delivers a “clean” Shakespeare, often with some modest and entertaining interpretive business involving sets and costumes. Of course, the last time I checked, OSF was the largest regional company in the country (by budget), and the rehearsal time and coaching that comes with that budget are unavailable to anyone else. Which makes the achievement by this Twelfth Night stand out in Portland.
A big part of it must be director Lisa Harrow, whose first play with the Royal Shakespeare Company was a Twelfth Night in 1969. During her opening remarks, she dedicated this show to the four members of that cast who had died in recent weeks, including the great Roger Rees, who died Friday from cancer. (This writer knows him best for his work in Cheers and The West Wing, and playing the Sheriff of Rottingham in Mel Brooks’s “Robin Hood: Men in Tights,” but his stage career at the RSC and on Broadway was eminent.)
Although I would expect good performances from the veteran stars in the cast—Allen Nause (as the fool Feste), Dave Bodin (as the Puritan steward Malvolio), and Michael Mendelson (Duke Orsino)—their readings here were unusually sharp, for the most part, and the rest of the cast was just as crystalline, especially Kayla Lian in the starring role of Viola, Crystal Ann Munoz as Olivia (the remote object of Orsino’s affection), and Ithica Tell as Olivia’s maidservant Maria. Throw in a hilarious Orion Bradshaw as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a nicely layered performance from Jim Butterfield as Sir Toby Belch, and a well-realized Sebastian from Luke Armstrong, and your bases are covered. Their passage through the difficult bits of the language was mostly impeccable, and even when we smack into certain unsolvable words, their direct connection to the motives and feelings of the characters tells us enough to go on, happily.
An example of what I am talking about?A crucial moment in the play comes toward the end of Act 1, when Viola in an aside reveals her love for her master, Duke Orsino. By this time she has already survived a shipwreck, dressed herself as a young man, applied and been accepted to serve the Duke, and in the process shown us what a resourceful, spirited young woman she is. But there are more revelations in this short scene. Orsino tells us that he has already told Viola (whom he knows as the boy Cesario, of course) his innermost secrets, which is out of the ordinary. Clearly, he feels a sympatico with his new servant. And perhaps he’s also divined something about this young fellow: his “smooth and rubious” lips, his “his shrill and sound” voice. All is “semblative a woman’s part.”
We can figure this out without much trouble, and perhaps worry a bit that Viola’s disguise has been penetrated. I might have preferred that Mendelson change cadence for “smooth and rubious” and peer a little more closely at the one he is describing—for the first time, he is seeing things as they are, after all. And he even suggests that if Cesario/Viola is successful at the commission he offers, to woo the Duke’s supposed love, Olivia, he/she will be able to call the Duke’s “fortunes thine.” Which sounds a little like marriage, when you think about it.
Having put up an argument that the wooing of Olivia is bound to fail, Viola submits this way:
“I’ll do my best/To woo your lady: [Aside] yet, a barful strife!/Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife.”
“Barful”? We glide over this archaic word (which means something like “full of impediments”) and the odd (to our ears) construction, because Lian’s Viola has already established herself as a character whose circumstances we understand and sympathize with. And we are amazed by this declaration. I was amazed even though I’ve seen Twelfth Night many times: This is what happens when the actor’s approach is immediate, direct and true. Multiply that many, many more times, and a play you think you’ve taken the measure of becomes fresh.
The set design by Jack O’Brien stylishly classical—and leaves the stage and the way open for the actors to communicate in this way, and Sarah Gahagan’s period costumes operate in the same way. They are rich and engaging without a bit of distraction.
Another thing that happens? I left thinking that Bodin’s Malvolio was maybe the best I’ve ever seen, the amusement arriving organically after we had pieced together his character from clear descriptions by the OTHER characters/actors. So, it wasn’t Bodin’s Malvolio, exactly, it was the cast’s, too, which is how things should be, though I thought Bodin was just completely locked in to the character’s possibilities.
Nause’s Feste? Same thing, so much swift wordplay all delivered with great spirit, oscillating between the comic and philosophical, and never a problem with “getting” it, again despite the number of archaic words and poetic constructions. (And who knew he could sing so well!) But again, I could go through the cast list like this and make similar points.
My point is the obvious one: Someone helped imbue the production with a consistency like this, and that someone was Harrow. And once it’s there, once we start to feel confident that we aren’t going to lose sight of the characters or their dilemmas, we are free to dream our own Twelfth Nights.
Maybe you can already tell that we don’t see this Twelfth Night through a heavily tinted thematic lens. Harrow’s production doesn’t come with one, at least not one I could discern, though she and the actors have embedded hundreds (thousands?) of tiny interpretations of the text, the story, the characters, within the two-and-a-half hour running time (including intermission). Played like this, we provide the spotlights on scenes we may have forgotten or never quite understood. I’ll talk a little about my “discoveries,” just to provide a little compost in which you can grow your own.
My favorite scene on the night was the encounter between Viola and Feste, during which the wordplay gets giddy enough to become “meta”. Here’s a bit of their exchange:
Viola: … they that dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton.
Feste: Indeed words are very rascals since bonds disgraced them.
Viola: Thy reason, man?
Feste: Truth, sir, I can yield you none without words; and words are grown so false, I am loath to prove reason with them.
An entire school of French thought is predicted by this exchange about the instability, the malleability, of language. Later in the exchange, Feste says, “I am indeed not her [Olivia’s] fool, but her corrupter of words.” Good grief, the epitaph of a writer: He was not a fool, but a corrupter of words.
Nause and Lian are pitch-perfect through this, by the way.
The idea of “madness” comes up frequently in Twelfth Night, usually a sign that events have spun out of control for a particular character, that reality is too complex for them to have a good grasp on where they are or what they should do. Although she calls herself monstrous later, because of her disguise as a male, Viola gives us a good definition of those moments earlier, after she realizes that Olivia has fallen in love with her (or rather Cesario): “O Time, thou must untangle this, not I;/It is too hard a knot for me t’ untie.” Madness is a knot too hard to untie. The Elizabethan consequences of madness were dire: Malvolio (who isn’t mad, just as self-obsessed as most Illyrians, it seems) is bound and thrown into a dark room.
So, yes, I could imagine a Twelfth Night that plays up the madness element (critic Harold Bloom, by the way, concludes that the madness in the play is self-love, narcissism, that runs rampant through the characters, even unto Viola—I disagree, but…).
The interpretation I started thinking about soon after I left the theater, given the drift of the culture these days, would play off the scene between Orsino and Viola I quoted above, when he notes those rubious lips of hers. The Elizabethans, according to Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber, may have thought that humans were one sex, with the same sexual organs, only the “vital heat” of men pushed their privates outward, while the cooler constitution of women kept theirs internal. A ridiculous notion on the face of it, though it meant a looser construction of gender roles and characteristics, something our time is exploring at the moment. Shakespeare, especially in his poetry, played with the erotics of this, and in Twelfth Night, both Orsino and Olivia fall in love with the same person. So, yes, a production with MORE cross-dressing, attractions, deflections, transformations. And epiphanies: As Garber points out, the Twelfth Night of Christmas was the Feast of Epiphany, a feast of misrule featuring masques and revels.
I only bring this up to sketch where my own engagement with THIS Twelfth Night led. It didn’t lead me to the dead end of analyzing why certain performances succeeded and others did not. Or worse, to a dull evening about which I couldn’t muster a sentence because nothing onstage had penetrated my skull. No, it opened up the play to me again, instead, and just maybe it will do the same for you.
Twelfth Night continues at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW. Morrison (though it plays in the Alder St. theater), through August 2.