Twelfth Night

Skiing the mountain of Hamlet

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Danforth Comins talks about the Elizabethan Theatre, playing his third Danish prince, and this production’s aural soundscape

By SUZI STEFFEN

ASHLAND – If you’ve been to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at all in the past decade, you’ve likely seen Danforth Comins in a starring or other major role. From Orlando in As You Like It to Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well, from Mark Antony in Julius Caesar to Coriolanus in, well, Coriolanus, Comins has played many a Shakespearean role – and he utterly dominated the role of Brick in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as well, coincidentally in the same year that the last Hamlet ran at the festival.

This year, Comins, playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek, lays some hilarious hurt on boy-costumed Viola in Twelfth Night, where his dueling prowess is about as magnificent as hers. But he’s also playing the tortured Danish prince in an outdoor Hamlet, opening in the Elizabethan Theatre tonight: Friday, June 17. At some point among all of his fight rehearsals, scene-running and prep work for the Hamlet opening, Comins took the time for an interview with ArtsWatch. The edited Q&A is below.

Hamlet (Danforth Comins) confronts Gertrude (Robin Goodrin Nordli) about her marriage to his uncle, Claudius. Photo: Dale Robinette, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Hamlet (Danforth Comins) confronts Gertrude (Robin Goodrin Nordli) about her marriage to his uncle, Claudius. Photo: Dale Robinette, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Suzi Steffen: You’ve played many a Shakespeare role, including Benedick and Coriolanus and Bertram and Orlando and Mark Anthony. And this is your third time playing Hamlet, though your first time at the OSF. What’s different or special about playing Hamlet?

Danforth Comins: Hamlet stands apart from many of the other plays in the canon because of its cultural significance and impact over the centuries, Coriolanus, great as it is, isn’t done very often, and the protagonist is not a knight in shining armor by any stretch of the imagination. Hamlet has succeeded through the centuries, maybe because it grapples with death and the afterlife. Those are topics that still elude us as society and a culture to this day; we’re fascinated.

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From shipwreck to fairy tale

Notes on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s first four plays of 2016

 

By SUZI STEFFEN

Theater, from the audience side, often feels like a beautiful dream. You go in, the lights go down, and if all goes well, you’re captivated for somewhere between 90 minutes and at a stretch, four hours. That’s one of the usual experiences at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, where – in completely undreamlike ways – teams of experts at sound, light, video, costumes, timing, action and words nudge up against one another to bring the world in the play to life.

When the season opens with one of Shakespeare’s gender-bending romantic comedies, that creation of magic is, quite practically, a demand, and this season, Twelfth Night mostly hits its magic mark. But theatrical magic isn’t confined to the Shakespeare play in the four shows that opened this year’s festival, three of which take British literary heritage and spin it into a distinct product of the United States. The final show is also invested in heritage and magic, a poetic dream, or perhaps nightmare, by way of Latin America.

Of the four plays that opened in late February, only one seemed fully ready to go opening weekend. That one is also the one that has the shortest run: The River Bride, by poet Marisela Treviño Orta and directed by Laurie Woolery, which ends on July 7. The others needed more time in the rehearsal oven for various reasons. It’s probable that by the time you, dear reader, buy tickets, the plays will have taken a more final form.

 

Twelfth Night

 

Let’s begin with Twelfth Night (in the Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 30), as opening weekend did. Twelfth Night is a wild, woolly comedy, meant to entertain Queen Elizabeth and her court at Christmas, though there are exactly zero Christmas references in it. You can argue (fairly) that 1999’s Shakespeare in Love* doesn’t merit its Best Picture win at the Oscars, but one thing that movie did well, perhaps more subtly than I thought at the time, was introducing Twelfth Night.

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Through the ‘Twelfth Night,’ clearly

The excitement of Portland Shakespeare Project's 'Twelfth Night' is in its transparency

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.

Orion Bradshaw, Allen Nause and Jim Butterfield provide the hijinks in the Shakespeare Project's 'Twelfth Night'/David Kinder

Orion Bradshaw, Allen Nause and Jim Butterfield provide the hijinks in the Shakespeare Project’s ‘Twelfth Night’/David Kinder

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.

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At Post5, the comedy’s the thing

A witty, clownish, contemporary "Twelfth Night" is one of the funniest shows of the season

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.

From left: Jessica Tidd, Chip Sherman, Trri Paddleford, Jim Vadela, Tom Walton. Photo: Russell J Young

From left: Jessica Tidd, Chip Sherman, Trri Padellford, Jim Vadela, Tom Walton. Photo: Russell J Young

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.

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Twelfth Night continues through May 16 at Post 5 Theatre 1666 S.E. Lambert St. Ticket and schedule information are here.