Twelfth Night delights fans at Vanier Park
Overview : Critics and academics over the centuries have tried too hard to make too much out of Shakespeare's goofy Twelfth Night. All Billy Bard was trying to do was give the clever patrons and the cheap-seat-rabble at The Globe lots of shenanigans to tittle and guffaw at. TN is like a Hallowe'en party on speed -- scads of silly people playing games in costumes sewn not just of thread but of thought and deed as well. Mistaken identities, disguises, romantic fantasies, cozening capers, songs, drunk scenes, homoerotic dilly-dallying, omg what a swillery of good cheer. Indeed, maidservant Fabiana captures Shakespeare's intent in her ironic observation : "If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction."
Funny, this. Because even Director Dennis Garnhum falls for the traditional academic conceits over the script. Viz., from his program Notes : "I noticed that at the beginning of the play we are introduced to many characters at a crossroad in their lives. It seems that everyone is blocked or struggling with tragedy or neglect. Love is not being reciprocated. Feelings are being held back. Everyone here is looking for guidance, or direction, or a path to reveal itself." Really now. Really? Naw, say I -- it's none of that new-agey stuff at all. No disrespect to Mr. Garnhum but i.m.o. it's nothing but farce and slapstick and riotous good fun without a scintilla of The Serious about it in the least. And I think WS intended it precisely that way.
First impressions : Despite my disagreement with Mr. Garnhum on the purported theme of the piece, his execution of the script is why we go to theatre, starting with his setting the play in 1913 in the ragtime era at a sumptuously tricked out spa and resort. He writes : "As luck would have it, the true inspiration for this production was ignited while reading the play on a lounge chair at a glorious resort in Southern California. As I alternated between sipping on my glass of Chardonnay, looking at all the beautiful people lounging about and reading these delightful words, I couldn't help but wish that these characters (Olivia, Viola, Orsino and all) would jump from the pages and join me, poolside, for a much needed rest." His production has these characters do precisely that -- "jump from the pages" -- much to the fun, sport and amusement of the actors themselves and us participants in the giddy opening night (ON) audience. The "much needed rest" part will have to await the run's end.
Plotline: A long, long time ago in a land far, far away called Illyria, Duke Orsino pines piteously over the lovely Countess Olivia. She meanwhile is in grief over the recent deaths of both her father and her brother and proclaims she will grieve for seven years. She thus refuses Orsino's advances utterly. Enter Viola who is plopped unceremoniously onto Illyria's shores thanks to a wild storm at sea that takes her twin brother Sebastian from her. Viola hears the local gossip and decides she would like to work as servant to Olivia, but is certain the woman behind the black veil would reject her in her grief. So instead she dresses herself in the kind of no-nonsense manly get-up her twin brother might sport, re-brands herself as the young buck "Cesario", and succeeds to be hired as Orsino's "manservant". This initial act of cross-dressing sets in motion all of the play's hijinks. Admits Viola to herself : "Disguise, I see, thou art a wickedness, Wherein the pregnant enemy does much."
When Orsino (Todd Thomson) dispatches "Cesario" (Rachel Cairns) to plead with Olivia (Jennifer Lines) to reciprocate Orsino's swooning of her, it takes Olivia a nanosecond -- well maybe a New York minute -- to feel twitches of "love" for the cross-dresser, and immediately throws herself at "him" in spite of her grief. Meanwhile Cesario, for "his" part, finds his lovesick boss Orsino quite a buff hunk and dreams of winning his heart, but of course s/he can't without blowing his/her cover. Enter Olivia's puritanical manservant Malvolio, who entertains thoughts of winning his mistress Olivia's heart and her wrenching him from service to become her hubby and a Count. It's Downton Abbey's upstairs, downstairs and all the landings in between.
The play is riddled with comic riffs, most notably by Olivia's bibulous cousin Sir Toby Belch (Bill Dow), his buffoon sidekick Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Richard Newman), and Olivia's fool Feste (Jonathon Young). Feste is a classic verbal trickster but also chief barkeep and spinner of 78's for the ever-besotted Belch and for Aguecheek -- aptly named for a man nervous of his own shadow. As with all fools in WS scripts, their insight and wisdom drive the humour they speak. Enter Olivia's maidservant Maria (Naomi Wright). Cheeky and pissy at Malvolio (Allan Zinyk), she conspires with Belch and Aguecheek and Fabiana (Barbara Pollard) to trick him into believing Olivia truly does have the hots for him -- his alternate universe granted reality status -- if only he'll dress like a nerd and smile at her unceasingly until his parchment skin cracks. Major Uggghhh! reaction from Olivia. Declared "mad", Malvolio is dungeoned, only released as part of the denouement.
And so we have everyone "loving" someone other than anyone they might succeed in winning over. Misery loves company. Until twin brother Sebastian (Daniel Doheny) shows up at the end having been saved from drowning by naval officer Antonio (Craig Erickson). Can't go unnoticed -- Antonio's "love" of Sebastian smacks of more than just dadly benevolence. But I digress. Sebastian arrives en scene dressed identically to Viola/Cesario. This "coincidental" occurrence is the catalyst for the heterosexual coupling-up that typically occurs in Elizabethan romantic comedy. It all finally happens and everyone goes away happy except poor abused Malvolio, i.e. Olivia dumps "Cesario" ker-plop! and immediately weds-&-beds Cesario's twin Sebastian. Proof positive this is slapschtick, not messagy-stuff. Further in this drift, Billy Bard would be fully aware of the Latin roots in Malvolio's name that bespeak the playwright's intent with this character : a man who comports himself poorly and with intention in doing so. No question. Malvolio is a comic character pure-&-simple, not a "cause" at all.
Characters -- good, bad & ugly : Potential playgoers will be happy to note none of the cast is either bad or ugly! in their performances. Judging by ON reaction at curtain, Jonathon Young's Feste stole the show for a bunch of folks, with Dow's Belch nipping at his heels and Newman's Aguecheek chasing closely after his, or maybe vice-versa for those two. Bard newcomer Cairns as Viola/Cesario wins kudos for her skill as a s/he fending off Olivia. The blocking and stage business between Viola and Olivia as Viola arches her back incessantly to avoid Olivia's groping hands discovering s/he has breasts are terrific. Well-conceived and well-wrought action staged by Director Garnhum and superbly delivered by Cairns and Lines. For their parts Young and Dow were neck-&-neck heading into the final turn for excellence in voice projection and diction, with Young in the end maybe beating Dow by a mere half-length or so. Malvolio : Allan Zinyk's take on the part is superb. It's without a hair's breadth of "take me serious" at any point -- all hyperbole and exaggeration throughout. His reading of Maria's fake letter ostensibly from Olivia was one of the...
Best scenes : Toss-up between Malvolio's letter-reading and the drunken revelry scene with all the frat-rat tennis boys, including the Sea Captain (Duncan Fraser) whose deft dodge of Malvolio's grab at his drink was choreography and timing as tight as anything recently seen. Both of these scenes alone are worth the shell-out of ducats to see.
Production values : ON winner in this category was without a doubt False Creek in the backdrop with its lovers hand-in-hand, twinkling West End lights, the odd Mayor Moonbeam cyclist wandering by. But scenery designer Pam Johnson did her damndest on-stage to compete with God's grandeur outdoors. The all-white spa set was marbly and steamy and richly decked out with cathedral doors, schmancy concierge reception, well-stocked bar, chandaliers. Costume designer Nancy Bryant balanced the suit-y stuff with the swim-y stuff and the shipwreck-y stuff right smartly. The ragtime motif by sound designer Jeremy Spencer kicked off with great promise but seemed to this ear to fizzle thereafter. Final Hey-Ho! number, however, was sheer delight.
Who gonna like, who gonna not : Shakespeare aficionados of course will certainly do (unless perhaps they're purists who think Malvolio is a "wronged" man, bullied, and thus a bit "tragic" who are looking for some "dark" and "deep" layers to the play. I obviously share not that cut at this script). Newbies to Billy Bard will find much to like -- while they may struggle with the lingo and Elizabethan idioms and metaphors -- likely they'll find the sheer force of the comedy will sweep them along. Pre-teens and social media wonks, uhh, don't waste your money buying tix for them, but engaged high school lit. students for sure should go.
50 words or less : This is puppy-love stuff, not the stuff of Romeo and Juliet. No amount of academic preening will change my mind about that. Go. Get silly. Get horny. Laugh. All while looking out at False Creek and the West End under a circus tent. Tell me what's wrong with this picture.