If you ever secretly harbored a desire to see what Charles Manson might have made of William Shakespeare’s preening, pompous manservant, Malvolio … well, sorry, too late, because the Filter Theatre Company/Royal Shakespeare Company production of Twelfth Night has packed its bags and set sail following a two-night stand for Duke Performances in Duke University’s R.J. Reynolds Industries Theater this past weekend (and with it, the remarkable performance of Fergus O’Donnell and his hirsute, wild man of a Malvolio). A mostly full auditorium sat in bemused disbelief as eight performers wearing street clothes bedecked with the occasional Elizabethan hint, milled about on a nearly bare stage.
The only visible scenic elements were a few folding tables on which sat random electronic equipment, a few chairs, many exposed cables and wires, and an absurdly tiny amplifier. A drum kit at left, a ukulele at right, a casually engaged bass player up center.
The happy music that elicits Orsino’s “If music be the food of love, play on!” morphs quickly into the ominous stomp of the storm that wrecks the passing ship and hurls poor Viola on the unknown shore to deliver “What country, friends, is this?” One half-expects the Sea Captain to reply “Why, this is the Wooster Group, Lady!” Circa 1985. In other words, none of what follows is particularly original; but my how this jubilant company works to make sure you couldn’t care less.
For those who don’t know the story, Viola and her twin brother Sebastian survive the shipwreck, though neither knows that the other survived. In order to pass safely through the land, Viola (played with a tomboyish calm by Amy Marchant) dresses as a young man and winds up in the employ of (and smitten with) the lovelorn Duke Orsino (Harry Jardine), who pines for the lady Olivia. But Olivia’s father and brother have both recently died, so she has adorned herself in mourner’s garb and declared that she will be unavailable for a year.
Not being a particularly patient fellow, Orsino sends his new “boy”, Viola (now calling herself Cesario), to woo his would-be love. But Olivia immediately falls in love with Cesario and begins pining for him. Olivia’s butler, Malvolio, preening around the house and lording his position over the lesser Maria (Sandy Foster, all shoulders and bowed knees); Olivia’s cousin, the besottedly garrulous knight, Toby Belch (Dan Poole, more besotted than Knight); and his visiting friend, the world’s first dimwitted frat boy, Andrew Aguecheek (a dervish-like Jardine again). These three, along with Olivia’s clown, Feste (also Foster), realizing that Malvolio is infatuated with Olivia, concoct a brutally funny plot to utterly humiliate him before his beloved.
Director Sean Holmes, artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith in London, has assembled a young, brash, wry, and robust cast of actors and musicians who are able to mine the story for layers of humor not often seen in this or any other 400-year-old play, and manage to take time out for some comically unexpected hijinks that appeal to a modern sensibility. Pizzas are delivered en masse.
The night I saw the show, a man who appeared to be about 80 was brought onstage, fitted out with a goofy Velcro helmet and then used for target practice by an audience full of nerf ball tossing Dukies (one assumes). A man and woman were brought onstage who made the Mansonesque O’Donnell Malvolio look like a Brooks Brothers model by comparison. They got in on the nerf ball act, too.
Near the end, when Malvolio — convinced that the best way to Olivia’s heart is through cross garters and yellow stockings — loses all his clothing, save for a bright yellow pair of socks and an equally yellow Speedo, he of course finds a reason to wander out into the audience (not just into the aisle, but into the audience).
Occasionally, the cast sings, as scripted by the Bard, mournful songs of longing, of love lost and love never gained. Ronke Adekoluejo as Olivia has a beautiful voice, but seemed to be performing in a slightly different version of the play than her fellow actors. Maybe that works for the perpetually aloof Olivia.
The one place where the production bogs down is the end. Usually, the moment when “Cesario” and Sebastian reunite is one of utter joy and release for the audience and the cast. But getting to that moment can be a slog, with the scenes between Sebastian and his friend Antonio causing the audience to whiplash out of the chaos of one world into the more cautious one of the even-tempered Sebastian. Director Sean Holmes’ decision to largely jettison those scenes and to have Cesario merely “see” her brother in the audience during their reunion was the one misstep in an otherwise well-calibrated production.
Sebastian’s resurrection sets in motion a final series of events: Cesario reveals himself to be the woman, Viola. That leaves Olivia with the twin brother Sebastian and leaves Orsino without his love, Olivia. But the wise Orsino realizes that the “boy” Cesario was the one he really loved all along, which allows him to claim his own romantic prize, Viola (who has, of course, loved him from the start).
Finally, Maria, Belch, and Aguecheek are found out and admonished for their mistreatment of Malvolio. Seemingly having learned nothing, the near-nude butler tosses back his long brown locks, looks down his nose, and declares “I’ll be revenged on all of you.” He then heads into the audience again for one last shudder-inducing trip up the long aisle home. Throughout this chaos, director Sean Holmes and his team manage to keep hold of the thread of the narrative. Remarkably, the story holds. Twelfth Night is a delightful evening.
SECOND OPINION: Feb. 6th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Spencer P. Phillips: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=7813; and Feb. 3rd Durham, NC Indy Week preview by Adam Sobsey: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/filter-theatre-slices-and-dices-twelfth-night-at-duke-performances-why-cant-we-leave-the-bard-aloneand-vice-versa/Content?oid=4988909.
TWELFTH NIGHT (Duke Performances, Feb. 5 and 6 in the R.J. Reynolds Industries Theater on Duke University’s West Campus in Durham).
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HwC8LNLjkCI.
PRESENTER: http://dukeperformances.duke.edu/, https://www.facebook.com/dukeperformances, and https://twitter.com/DukePerformance.
Twelfth Night, or What You Will (c. 1601-02 comedy): http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/Texts/TN/ (Internet Shakespeare Editions) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelfth_Night (Wikipedia).
William Shakespeare (English playwright and poet, 1564-1616): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Shakespeare (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/doc/TN_M/scene/1.1/ (Internet Shakespeare Editions).
Study Guide: http://www.bard.org/study-guides/twelfth-night-study-guide (Utah Shakespeare Festival).
Filter Theatre Company (English theater company, based in London): http://www.filtertheatre.com/ (official website), http://www.facebook.com/pages/Filter-Theatre-Company/107109036014783 (Facebook page), http://twitter.com/filtertheatre (Twitter page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filter_Theatre (Wikipedia).
Royal Shakespeare Company (English theater company, based in Stratford-upon-Avon): http://www.rsc.org.uk/ (official website), http://www.ibdb.com/Person/View/24468 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/company/co0103320/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/thersc (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/TheRSC (Twitter page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Shakespeare_Company (Wikipedia).
Sean Holmes (British director and artistic director of Lyric Hammersmith in London): http://www.pentabus.co.uk/sean-holmes (Pentabus Rural Theatre Company bio) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sean_Holmes (Wikipedia).
Raleigh, NC director and actor Jerome Davis and his wife, Simmie Kastner, founded Burning Coal Theatre Company in 1985. For Burning Coal, Davis has directed Rat in the Skull, Winding the Ball (in Raleigh and New York City), The Steward of Christendom, Hamlet, Night and Day, David Edgar’s Iron Curtain Trilogy (in Raleigh and London), Company, Shining City, The Weir and St. Nicholas (the last as an actor), The Road to Mecca, Juno & the Paycock, The Man Who Tried to Save the World (as playwright), Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Taming of the Shrew, Inherit the Wind, Hysteria, 1960, The Seafarer, Enron, Jude the Obscure Parts 1 & 2 and Sunday in the Park with George. He has also directed Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw for the North Carolina Opera, Of Mice and Men for Temple Theatre in Sanford, and Red for the Actors Guild of Lexington. Jerry Davis has studied with Uta Hagen, Nikos Psacharapolous, and Julie Bovasso. He has studied or worked with Adrian Hall, Richard Jenkins, Hope Davis, Ellen Burstyn, Oliver Platt, Amanda Peet and Ralph Waite. He has worked at Trinity Rep in Providence; NJ Shakespeare; People’s Light & Theatre, near Philadelphia, the Phoenix Theatre at SUNY/Purchase; Avalon Rep; the Mint; Columbia University; and many others. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.