by William Shakespeare
Theatre UNB and The NotaBle Acts Theatre Company
The Barracks Square, June 2007
Outdoor Shakespeare, as I observed in reviewing last summer's production in the Barracks Square, isn't such an odd phenomenon: in fact, it gives modern audiences and companies a chance to see the Bard's plays in something a lot more like the context he wrote them for than is a modern, high-tech, acoustically sophisticated, and socially reverential theatre. That isn't to say, however, that it's not a challenge to make language that's over 400 years old, and a set of cultural assumptions just as old, comprehensible to a modern audience against the distractions of traffic noise, passersby, and weather (after all, as Feste reminds us in the song that closes this wonderful play, "the rain it raineth every day"). The challenge is to make the play big without making it dumb.
Len Falkenstein's cast and company met that challenge in spades: this was as vibrant and energetic, but at the same time as disciplined and coherent, a production of Twelfth Night as I've seen, and as effective a use of an outdoor space as I've encountered, in Fredericton or elsewhere. The Barracks space is not, on the face of it, the most convenient space for theatre, but this year (as last) Falkenstein's use of it made what might seem a handicap into a series of opportunities: surrounding the audience with the action from time to time, pulling our attention back and forth from the front of the barracks building to the guard house behind us and back seamlessly, anticipating the possibility that we'll be distracted by making distraction part of the show. Frequently, characters not in a scene were to be found somewhere else in the space, in character, being part of the scene, if not the action, in mime.
That anything we might be seeing at any moment was conscious, focused, deliberate and thoughtful was supported by everything about the production, from the splendid costumes (drawn eclectically and brilliantly by Mary Quinn from contexts ranging from the Italian Renaissance to 19th century top hats to a kind of fantasy of S&M military skateboarding chicks in mesh hose and shades forming a sort of praetorian guard for Count Orsino), to the elegant, spare props, to the perfect timing of entrances and scene changes, to the clear focus of virtually every actor, at every moment, on the business at hand -- even in the midst of the most physical of slapstick routines.
Falkenstein's interpretation of this often-performed classic was straightforward and unobtrusive. Set in an unspecified fantasy land, his Illyria incorporated wonderfully disparate elements: a typical banana-republic one-party dictatorship (the huge red poster announcing, a la Big Brother, that "Count Orsino Loves You," for example), a classic late-Renaissance court, with its hanger-on relation, its visiting fop, its resident court fool, and its inexplicable Puritan serving man -- and somehow, at the same time a sort of Fantasy Island full of love and madness and excess. Where last year's Much Ado was set in a specific historical period, this production was in, well, a la la land very much like what Shakespeare probably imagined -- as we do -- as Illyria.
Fundamentally, however, the success of the production was due to the powerful cast Falkenstein assembled. Most of his actors are familiar to Fredericton theatre audiences, and have established reputations as solid performers. It's not possible to list them all, but some particularly strong performances need to be acknowledged -- beginning, perhaps, with what might seem the pretty minor roles of Valentine, Curio, and First Officer, who were played in startling militaristic precision and focus by Brianne Gulley, Meghan Loch, and Jennifer Roberge-Renaud. Their close-order drills and militaristic marching about (in their wonderful strange costumes) contrasted effectively with Matt Spinney's madly lovelorn and overblown Count Orsino, and provided a kind of surreal context for the action -- not to mention a wonderful doo-wop chorus to Feste's rendition of "Come away, come away, death."
Marissa Robertson created one of the most convincingly attractive (and attracted) Violas I've ever seen: watching her listening to the supposed Cesario courting her on behalf of his master was a lesson in how to be stricken with love and lust as though with a thunderbolt; and throughout she was animated, aggressive, focused and convincing. It couldn't have been clearer why Orsino might have fallen so desperately in love with her. Her verbal fencing matches with Feste and with Cesario set off sparks, even with some of the verbal pyrotechnics that summer theatre often feels it needs to edit out because language like this is so hard to make clear in the open air and at a distance:
Oh, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and taste with a distempered appetite. To be generous, guiltless and of free disposition, is to take those things for bird-bolts that you deem cannon-bullets: there is no slander in an allowed fool, though he do nothing but rail; nor no railing in a known discreet man, though he do nothing but reprove.Much of the energy of this comedy, of course, as always in Shakespeare, comes from the characters in the secondary plot, and here too Falkenstein chose well. His Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Nicholas Cole and Michael Holmes-Lauder), ably assisted by a joyously earthy Maria (Leah Holder), regularly created the kind of mad slapstick misrule that gives the play its character. Cole's boisterous, physical Sir Toby, flinging his body about on the lawn, contrasted powerfully with Holmes-Lauder's poncy, foppish Sir Andrew, creating a physical comedy which never undercut or dampened the verbal. Sir Andrew's capering never interfered with our ability to hear his self-incriminating language -- "Methinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has: but I am a great eater of beef and I believe that does harm to my wit." The fact that Holmes-Lauder's curly hair does not even come close to hanging "like flax on a distaff," as Toby observes, hardly mattered in the rush of energy and pell-mell creative business generated as the conspirators joined to gull the hapless Malvolio.
The role of Viola, the shipwrecked woman who decides -- quite arbitrarily, as far as we can tell -- to disguise herself as a eunuch and enter the service of the lovelorn Orsino, is both a challenge and an opportunity. The jokey cross dressing and sexual innuendoes as she courts Olivia on behalf of Orsino (both, of course, in Shakespeare's company, would have been men, dressed as women -- and in the case of Viola, dressed again as a man) offer lots of opportunity for embarrassment and for complicity with the audience -- and, indeed, Viola has almost the only asides in the play. Vivien Zelazny, with both Matt Spinney's huge, heedless Orsino and with Marissa Robinson's sexually charged Olivia, played the role in as complicatedly confused a way as we could hope, mugging perplexedly as she realized that Olivia was falling in love with "him," and equally perplexedly as she realized that she, in turn, was falling for Orsino. "Whoe'er I woo," she says to us, "myself would be his wife." If Zelazny chose to work on a slightly smaller scale, relying on her expressive face and voice more than her body to convey her bemusement (and her arch awareness of the irony of her situation), it was clear why she did so.
What is often seen as the central challenge of the play is the position of the puritan servant, Malvolio, who is famously gulled, humiliated, and imprisoned as a "punishment" for his sanctimonious arrogance. This is sometimes viewed as a problem: how can we possibly join in the joy at his ghastly fate? John Ball's portrayal of Malvolio -- stiff, awkward, arrogant, supercilious -- was a wonderful lesson in how to present a Malvolio for whom we feel both pity and contempt. Serves him right, we thought as Feste triumphed over him, remembering Malvolio's "I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal." As he presented himself in his deluded, cross-gartered grandeur, dramatizing himself as the newly elevated lord of the manor, we saw how Maria characterizes him -- "The devil a puritan that he is," she says, "the best persuaded of himself, so crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him." At the same time, we could see how pathetically grand his fantasies are, how, like any of the heroes of classic tragedies, his fall may be somehow fitting, somehow a consequence of his own actions, but also a reminder of how far we all have to fall. When, at the end, let out of his prison and further humiliated by Feste, this Malvolio, slamming his ridiculous shoe on the ground, shouted, "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you," it was as appropriate to a tragedy as to a comedy. No easy reconciliation for us here: we were left not feeling sorry for Malvolio at all -- and at the same time feeling very sorry for him, and perhaps for ourselves.
And then of course there's the mysterious and brilliant Feste, the Fool who's identified as a clown in Shakespeare's text, but is never identified in the dialogue as anything but a Fool, in the tradition that would eventually culminate in King Lear's court fool. Scott Shannon, whom I've admired in a number of other roles (like many of the principals in this fine production) gave us a powerful, thoughtful, and focused a Feste as I've ever seen: complicated and clever -- and wondrously musical -- and at the same time just slightly scary, just threatening enough that when he twisted the knife in Malvolio's wounds -- quoting his own words back at him to make the depth of his humiliation even greater -- it was no surprise at all. "Why, 'some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrown upon them.' I was one, sir, in this interlude; one Sir Topas, sir; but that's all one. 'By the Lord, fool, I am not mad.' But do you remember? 'Madam, why laugh you at such a barren rascal? an you smile not, he's gagged', he says, "and thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges." Shannon's Feste, cleverly begging as though it were a negotiation, outwitting everybody, being drunk and disorderly with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew but keeping his own spooky counsel, singing his wonderfully ambiguous songs (with real brio, to wonderfully effective music composed by John Ball), was a lynchpin of this production.
And then, as well, there was the wonderful music of Vetch, beginning the evening, and then, in the action, responding to Orsino's classic "If music be the food of love, play on," and cringing and slinking off at "Enough, no more; / 'Tis not so sweet now as it was before," and providing, by bringing the music out into the audience in the persons of Matte Robinson and Janine Gallant's trumpet and trombone, a perfect entr'acte between the two halves of the show (I could not understand, however, why, on the night I was there at any rate, the vocal amplification was nonexistent, so that Kora Woolsey's vocals -- usually matched perfectly with the brass instruments, were nearly inaudible).
Indeed, almost the only disappointment in the evening was that Vetch had disappeared by the end. Feste's final song, "with a hey, ho, the wind and the rain," usually done solo, on an empty stage, in this case brought in everybody (except, of course, Malvolio) for a rollicking conclusion. I wished that Vetch had been there too: what fun they could have had with "The rain it raineth every day."