On the centennial of women receiving the vote in New York, it seems fitting to finally see woman take center stage, even in the formerly all-male land of Shakespeare.
Blackfriars Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night, directed by Alexa Scott-Flaherty, upends the historical casting of Shakespeare by casting a woman in every role. Adopting as a setting the era in which women’s roles in society took a giant leap forward – the 1920s – this Rochester, NY, production leaves the audience wondering with amusement about love and gender. Not to mention humming a tune.
The show is a success. Costume designer Janice Elizabeth Ferger adds a layer of opulence with 1920s costumes shimmering with sparkles and fringe. The set is ostensibly a speak-easy, complete with a jazz trio. Duke Orsino takes on the appearance of a club owner and Count Olivia is a headliner mourning the recent loss of her father and brother. Servants Valentine and Curio become entertainers, dancing the Charleston and singing backup for Feste, portrayed by Micayla Greco as a sensuous and mischievous torch singer.
The play centers on a young woman, Viola (Sara Michelle Penner) cast ashore in Illyria and separated from her twin brother, whom she presumes to be dead. She decides to make a go of this strange world dressed as a young man. Then she falls in love with Orsino, who employs her to woo Olivia, the countess who wants no part of him. Olivia (Erin-Kate Howard) falls for Viola, however, disguised as the youth Cesario. Meanwhile Olivia’s self-important head servant, Malvolio, offends her lady in waiting, who with her followers exacts revenge both hysterically funny and viciously cruel. Mistakes in love and identity abound.
Unlike in Shakespeare’s time, the idea of actors playing a different gender than they are is not a social convention today. It’s still a novelty, even while all-female Shakespeare productions are growing in popularity – see Phyllida Lloyd’s 2016 Taming of the Shrew, or The National Theatre’s 2017 production of Twelfth Night with Tamsin Grieg playing Malvolio as Malvolia. The latter is an example of what I find a little confusing about what Blackfriars does – change some characters to females and plays others straight, as it were, without explaining or making obvious those choices.
All that is added on top of the play’s existing gender identity swaps. Blackfriars offers the unusual side-by-side comparison of a woman playing a woman who is supposed to not-so-convincingly pretend to be a man, and a woman playing a man believably. It’s always a toss-up whether the star of Twelfth Night will be Viola or Malvolio (Linda Starkweather in this version). Starkweather is remarkably convincing. With short shorn hair, an artfully applied mustache and skillful use of the lower register of her voice, she makes you forget a woman’s heart beats beneath that man’s three-piece suit. While she retains the character’s pomposity, she also makes him a sympathetic figure as he receives much more punishment than his overblown ego deserves.
Penner is an enthusiastic Viola/Cesario. Her expressive face is delightful to watch as Orsino (a conflicted Jill Rittinger) finds himself irresistibly drawn to cuddling and swaying with her while his singers set the mood. This is one of those improvised moments Scott-Flaherty has added that underscore the Bard’s mistaken-identity and gender themes. Later, when Malvolio is incarcerated and Feste visits him, Scott-Flaherty has Feste burn Malvolio with a cigarette to demonstrate just how far the jest at Malvolio’s expense has gone.
Drawing the actors from only one side of the gender pool may seem to present physical limitations, but by picking a variety of body sizes, from petite to big-boned, Scott-Flaherty has peopled this Twelfth Night with plausible variations on female and male characters who aren’t simply androgynous. Her Antonio, for instance, a former sea captain who has been in some scrapes with the law before, is played by Stephanie Roosa, whose height and girth suit the somewhat menacing role perfectly. Beth Winslow’s height similarly serves her well in her role as Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s incorrigible uncle. But age-blindness in casting has some actors playing against type distractively so. Winslow’s résumé suggests she may be older than she appears, but her Sir Toby still looks way too young to be Olivia’s uncle, and perhaps too young as a love match for a mature Maria (Judy McCaffery). A few wrinkles on Sir Toby’s face might have helped.
On the other hand, a fresh-faced Kate Armstrong made us forget that Sir Andrew Aguecheek is usually played by an older actor. She brings physical moves only a young actor can pull off as she bumbles and stumbles drunkenly through wooing Olivia drunkenly and trying to duel Cesario. She even plays some Jazz Age licks on a saxophone. Brava, clown, brava.
Generally, though, the play hangs together nicely with a well-developed concept. Audience members have a choice to sit in the usual seats or at café tables onstage in order to add to the speakeasy atmosphere. Original and period music (handled deftly by composer and music director Andy Pratt) add to the mood. And the cast operates as a true ensemble. The production is a fitting opener for a season Blackfriars is promoting with the phrase, “There’s something bold.”