Shakespeare Screwball Style


Title: Twelfth Night

Rating: 5 Stars

This is why I love going to the OSF. I see two plays in 24 hours, and they are two of the best plays that I’ve ever seen. Beyond that, they are about as completely different as can be.

As with Hamlet last night, I had the same set of trepidations. I’d previously seen Twelfth Night at the OSF and it was magnificent. Also, this was located on the set of a 1930’s screwball comedy. It seemed like a director conceit of the highest order.

However, as with Hamlet last night, it completely worked. It truly is amazing how malleable the work of Shakespeare is, that text from 400 years ago can be re-purposed and yet still retain the magic. It’s also a testimony to the talent and the genius of the OSF company that they can pull it off. I’m sure that it probably would have been silly in other less capable hands.

The stars of the play were, without question, Maria, Toby Belch, Andrew Aguecheek, and Festes. The antics / interplay of the first three in particular left me literally wiping away tears of laughter. Their antics when Malvolio was reading the alleged love note from Olivia and the duel between  the equally incompetent and cowardly Aguecheek and Viola were just perfect examples of screwball comedy that it makes  you wonder why this play isn’t always played this way.

Of special note is the character who played Aguecheek. He was played by Danforth Comins. As played, he’s the epitome of the drunk, fopish, silly, knight-errant. If you were to watch it, you’d think that he’s a comedic genius playing the role that he was born to play. And then you realize that just the night before, not even 24 hours previously, he was playing fucking Hamlet. Yes, Hamlet. Two completely different characters and he completely inhabited both. To say the least, I am gobsmacked at his brilliance and range.

Viola was also strong. Previously, I’d seen a male actor play Sebastian and a female actor played Viola. In this case, the same actor played both. She was certainly a feminine looking / acting man. However, since gender identity is obviously a huge aspect of the play, this was not inappropriate.  In fact, she kind of reminded me of an 18 YO Justin Bieber, so maybe the times have caught up with Shakespeare on this score.

Malvolio was also a highlight. The actor played the role of the arrogant, egotistical, self-important servant to the hilt. The scene where he reads Olivia’s supposed love note, which imposes upon him the desire to smile, was a treasure. Clearly, he has not smiled for many years. The contortions that he goes to, finally ending up with the pasted on smile of a Las Vegas dancer, was a perfect way to bring the audience to the intermission on a high note.

The later, pretty much torture of Malvolio is the main sour note. No matter how priggish his behavior was, he does not deserve this, and the awkward reaction of Maria to this is an acknowledgment of the difficulty that this scene brings to 21st century audiences.

Another advantage of the 1930’s style was that it made the songs seem more natural. One of the things that I think that have had trouble translating to current times is the slightly odd tuneless Elizabethan songs interspersed in his plays. Since the setting was a 1930’s movie, impromptu song and dance seems to just fit in more than other conventional stagings. In fact, the last song was a full song and dance with taps and umbrellas utilizing most of the cast. It leads me to wonder, several of the actors did tap dance; how much of a call can there be for that skill nowadays?

At the end of the play, there is the great reveal where Sebastian and Viola are discovered to be twins that have lost each other. Since, in this case, the actor is really the same person, I was interested in how they would pull this off. They did so through the introduction of a film screen, which truly wasn’t that effective. It was clever, but probably too clever. There’s a reason that there is usually two actors for these roles.

Finally, usually the play ends with the four (Olivia, Orsini, Sebastian, and Viola) main characters paired off as two couples. However, this time, there were only three actors. Therefore, the play ended up with the three of them walking off hand in hand. Again, I’m guessing that this is a statement about the fallacy of binary gender identity.

So far at Ashland, I am 2 for 2. The two plays that I’ve seen thus far have been the best plays that I’ve ever seen. It just amazes me that this little town in basically nowhere Oregon can produce such world class plays.

Tomorrow will, however, be a challenge. Tomorrow is The Winter’s Tale, which is a pretty bizarre play. It’ll be really interesting if they can pull off some magic on this play as well.


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