Great Lakes Theater opens its 2016-17 season with Shakespeare’s comedy of mistaken identity and intrigue, Twelfth Night, with My Fair Lady in repertory. Director Drew Barr illuminates the “seductive mixture of comedy and sadness” (program note) on the Hanna Theatre’s modified thrust stage.
Russell Metheny’s scene design reflects both the somber and bright realities of the play. The rear façade of Metheny’s box set consists of large windows with grids and central and side openings. The windows are partially opaque, suggesting the winter’s frost. The backstage suggests a courtyard and a room where Sebastian recuperates after the shipwreck. The cyclorama, which is lit in blue, evokes the sea of Illyria. The visibility of backstage is masked with semi-opaque drapery.
The upper corner of the box set provides a loft for the musician, Jillian Kates. An aged chandelier above the center stage evokes an eerie atmosphere that resembles the world of “Miss Havisham from Dickens’s Great Expectations.” Like Miss Havisham “whose time stopped when she was jilted on her wedding day,” time seems to have stopped for Olivia who has fallen into depression after her beloved brother’s death.
The subtlety of Rick Martin’s lighting design further emphasizes the contrast between the warms and cools in the atmosphere. His use of spotlights serves to cut out the actors, like a picture frame, adding dramatic intensity in soliloquies and dialogues.
The director opens the play by telling, without words, the background story of Countess Olivia who recently lost her brother. Olivia (Christine Weber) enters her late brother’s room, goes to his empty bed, and picks up remaining keepsakes to put in a trunk while Sir Toby Belch (Aled Davies) carrying a sandwich in one hand and a flask in the other, stumbles through the servants who are cleaning the room.
This additional scene created by Barr contrasts with the first scene in the text where Viola laments her brother’s death in a shipwreck. This symbiosis allows the audience to prepare for the two women’s entanglement in the intrigue of mistaken identity.
One of the pleasures of watching a production of Twelfth Night is to see how the performance deals with the intersection between the main plot and subplot, and Barr’s production did it with seamless scene changes. During the course of the show, the major performance area quickly changes between Orsino’s palace, Olivia’s house, and the streets in Illyria.
In those multiple locations, both the characters of the main and subplots meet and clash. Davies’ Sir Toby Belch is an old, drunken, outrageous uncle with a good heart; Tom Ford’s Sir Andrew Aguecheeck serves as Toby Belch’s right hand; Laura Welsh Berg plays a prankster Fabian, guiding these two drunkards. In this production, the trio emphasizes their lecherousness, executing the Bard’s lines with obscene gestures. Laura Perrotta’s Maria is in total control of the Toby/Andrew/Fabian trio by capitalizing on their simple-minded drunkenness. M. A. Taylor, as Feste, portrays a witty, philosophical, melancholic, and sensitive fool who gives advice to both the main and subplot characters.
The trio’s victim is Olivia’s steward Malvolio, played by Lynn Robert Berg. Barr chose to exaggerate Malvolio’s famous scene of yellow stockings with cross garters. Berg as Malvolio parades in not only yellow stockings and cross legged garters but also a black corset. Although entertaining, Berg’s characterization of Malvolio and other characters’ reactions seem a bit outshadowed by his outfit.
Cassandra Bissell portrays a sensible and considerate Viola, disguised as Cesario. Bissell carefully reveals to the audience her gradual infatuation with Orsino who is in love with Olivia then, in turn, falls for Cesario. Juan Rivera Lebron as Orsino emphasizes the character’s self-indulgence. Jonathan Christopher MacMillan as Viola’s brother Sebastian exhibits his physical strength in the combat with the trio, choreographed by Ken Merckx.
Kim Sorensen has designed stunning costumes for the production. Her black Victorian dress with a long train and floral-patterned underskirt that Olivia first wears is exquisite. This black dress contrasts with the white, floral patterned Edwardian dress that she wears at the end of the show. However her black dress seems to overpower the actor and her performance. Other characters’ costumes are more subdued, serving to animate their unique features. Orsino’s elegant, sheer, scarlet night gown and pants in Act 1 reflect his melancholic personality. Viola and Sebastian’s dark-blue, double-breasted coats with floral and vine patterns reflect their noble lineage even in disguise. Feste in a long, gray, pinstriped frock coat with a top hat reminded me of a circus ringmaster. The yellow and green costumes worn by the trio colorfully emphasize their silly schemes and merriments.
The upbeat music for the electric guitar, composed by Daniel Kluger, adds a sense of timelessness to the show. Kates, the musician, squats when she is not playing, suggesting that she is a vagabond musician, or another “Feste,” who quietly observes all of the actions from above. Sound Designer Lee Kinney supplements the electric guitar with prepared “playback” sound.
The 2016 production marks the seventh production of Twelfth Night at Great Lakes Theater. Most recently, the company staged it in 2009, directed by Charles Fee, artistic director of the company. In this production Barr creates a contrast between the darker elements of the story and the façade of merriments and frivolity. As a result, Feste’s song, sung as the other characters leave the stage, reminisces about the emptiness of his life.