Stratford Trip: Twelfth Night

I saw four plays at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, so this will be a four-parter.

The album, which everyone should have.

I saw Twelfth Night on the Friday matinee of the week we came. It was my first time attending Stratford in September, and I hadn't anticipated that the bulk of the audience migth be high school students. Though I can't rightfully say how my own viewing experience was changed by the fact that in attendance were 700 (!) enthusiastic young people who were all familiar with the play, I can certainly say that was an interesting difference from the older, more sedate audience to which I am accustomed.

As the flagship Shakespearean production, Twelfth Night had the biggest budget and the money the creatives lavished on this show was visible right away. The set was a glorious purple mash-up of the Baroque style and the psychedelia aesthetic. On the floor of the Festival stage was an homage to the 'With The Beatles' album: Sebastian and Viola's profiles were silkscreened in black and white relief. Des McAnuff had set the stage for the evening ahead: a collision of eras and styles that was pretty awesome, even if it was disoriented sometimes.

The music, which I fell in love with to the point of acquiring the soundtrack, was an eclectic mix of 60's rock and Elizabethan madrigal. Backed by a live band and the vocal talents of most everyone on the cast, it took centre stage, which is a nice change from other productions that treat the music like an obligation rather than a joy. My only complaint was that it was too loud for my tender ears.

The costumes were extravagant to the point of rococo. Never has the Takarazuka Revue been unintentionally evoked with such frequency! From the bejewled 18th century haberdashery of Orsino's court to the poufy full-length Victorian gowns of Olivia's coterie and the tweed waistcoats and skinny pants of everyone else, it was an endless embarrassment of riches. I loved it, though sometimes the historical periods didn't quite fadge.

There were only a couple of McAnuff's idiosyncratic moments of staging that really seemed rotten. One of his biggest faults and biggest virtues is his tendency to do things just because they're cool, and not because they serve the piece. This eclecticism worked in Twelfth Night given the play's craziness. One thing I didn't like was his use of a large Weeping Angel to indicate the grave of Olivia's brother; in addition to the fact that I couldn't blink for the whole scene, it was placed far too far downstage, to the point where it was flush in the middle. The blocking that commenced was awkward; this was an odd misstep for someone who has thirty plus years of theatre experience.

did enjoy the inclusion of the Sebastian/Viola confusion long before it becomes an issue in the text. The idea that Sebastian and Viola just miss seeing each other throughout the play was pretty mindblowing.

The cast that populated this world were all skilled, funny, and clearly having a great time.

In the main plot, Andrea Runge played Viola. I remember her as a charming Old World Rosalind in the New Orleans As You Like It last season. As Viola in a psychedelic Twlefth Night, however, she is out of place. She wasn't miscast; this role should have fit her to a tee. I feel that she seemed to removed from the zaniness that is Illyria. When we see Viola in the second scene, the character has been in Orsino's court long enough to secure her lord's trust and to fall in love with him. By all rights, she should be acclimatized, but Ms Runge's Viola still sees everything with an ingenue's brand of wide eyes. But her diction and comic timing were as always impeccable, and she is of course quite appealing in man's dress.

Mike Shara as Orsino was just as grandiose and self-loving as one would expect, and looked very nice in the glitzy Restoration-style frock coat and knee-high boots. Mr. Shara has a deadpan acting style, but this did not impede the romanticism and indulgence of the character. Fun fact: This is not the first time that Mr Shara and Ms Runge have played sweethearts in a show. They also played Algernon Moncrieff and Cecily Cardew in The Importance Of Being Earnest two seasons ago.

The object of Orsino's affection, Olivia, was played by Sara Topham. Curiously, in terms of casting, she was the only false note in this production. I say 'curiously' because in a theatre that has a fixed repertory and company, I expect a great deal more miscasting. That said, Ms Topham was lovely and every inch the Grand Dame that she always is. Ultimately, she just wasn't right.

Trent Pardy as Sebastian and Michael Blake as Antonio were both very good, though acting honours definitely go to Mr Blake. He imbued Antonio with a quiet dignity and intensity that I don't expect to find in a comedy like Twelfth Night. I hope to see more of him in the future. Trent Pardy was cute as a button, had an eerie resemblance to Ms Runge that was probably helped by the matching hair piece, but didn't make much of an impression on me otherwise.

Considering a theme of this year's Stratford trip was a tendency among visiting actors to skip out near the end of the season, I am intensely grateful that Brian Dennehy was present and accounted for during this performance. As Sir Toby Belch, he was charming and robust. I did not have the pleasure of seeing Geraint Wyn-Davies in The Merry Wives of Windsor (or Camelot, for that matter; more on that later...), but I would bet good money that Mr Dennehy out-Falstaffed him.

As one of Toby's partners in crime, Maria, Cara Ricketts was her usual 100%, which is around everyone else's 110%. She was funny, classy, and gorgeous in a difficult role that has been taken on by the likes of Yanna McIntosh and Imelda Staunton. I cannot overemphasize how underutilized she has been in her three seasons at Stratford, compared to other lesser actresses who have been there for the same amount of time. She'd be a luminous Beatrice opposite Ben Carlson's Benedick next season.

Which clumsily transitions me to Ben Carlson's Feste. What can I say? I love this man. Rocking a grey Bob Dylan/Neil Young wig and a fender that was newly referenced in the script, he made Feste the sort of interesting guy he is on paper but hardly ever in performance. Something that surprised me was the amount of singing he was doing. Last year in the conversation we had with him and Seana McKenna, he professed that he could not sing, and hence could not be in Camelot. I call bullshit.

The merry band that Toby, Maria, and Feste comprise of wouldn't be complete without the last two guys that join in on their antics: Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Fabian. Andrew was played by the always excellent Stephen Ouimette, whose characterization of this idiot involved being smashed and clumsy for most of the play. Fabian, usually an unappealing late-act replacement for Feste, was made memorable by Juan Chioran, who was quite dashing in his Buddy Holly get-up.

The object of Toby Belch et al.'s wrath, Malvolio, was played by Tom Rooney, who was finally given his due. Alternately funny and scary, he was appealingly three-dimensional in a cartoonish role.

So, from what I've said here, I think it's clear that this would have been an awesome production even without the young audience. But the added energy from the students really did make it a great show. They were so receptive: the laughter was easily forthcoming, and there were empathetic 'awws' during the Antonio/Sebastian subplot and the Olivia/Viola/Orsino triangle. I've never been a part of such a receptive and enthusiastic audience.

Leaving the theatre, I heard endorsements and praise coming from the young people that probably won't make it onto a programme or the Festival's website any time soon. However, this praise is far more valuable than any accolades from newspaper critics. Whoever picks up Des McAnuff's position as Artistic Director in 2014 will be wise to continue his mandate to get more students to Stratford.

Next time: E sees Titus Andronicus, audits the best 'your mama' joke in the history of Western literature. Stay tuned!

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