Friday, March 29, 2013

ASF Interns: "Twelfth Night"

For three years in a row, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Intern Acting Company has been presenting abridged versions of Shakespeare's plays in its "Bringing the Bard to Your School" touring program. -- This year's staging of Twelfth Night continues the successful formula:
  • One romantic comedy; plus
  • One inspired and inspiring director; plus
  • Four gifted designers; plus
  • Eight energetic, enthusiastic, talented ensemble actors; equals
  • One hour and ten minutes of charming, accessible, rambunctious theatrical fun!!! 
Deserving its standing ovation, and followed by an informative "talk-back" session and a "workshop" with audience volunteers, the Intern Actors are making a mark on the local theatre scene that keeps live theatre a memorable experience and makes the Bard easy and enjoyable to watch. Director Greta Lambert has this year's company showcase their many skills -- vocal dexterity, clear characters and storytelling, inventive staging, physical flexibility, respect for the script and its language -- to demonstrate Shakespeare's comic genius in Twelfth Night that speaks to audiences some 400+ years since it was first performed in London's Middle Temple in 1602 when Shakespeare was in mid-career as a playwright.

Many of the Elizabethan Period's comic conventions are found in Twelfth Night: an assortment of outlandish behaviors by people in the thralls of love, disguises/mistaken identity resulting in ambiguous gender confusion, drunken revelers, fools, practical jokes, all of which are intertwined with some pretty serious issues like madness, the folly of ambition, and the social roles of men and women. In Shakespeare's time, the end of the Christmas season -- the "Twelfth Night" of the title -- marked a time of "licensed disorder" overseen by the Lord of Misrule, and Ms. Lambert's production does just that, bridging time with occasional anachronistic gestures, rap and Gangnam-style versions of Shakespeare's lyrics, and contemporary attitudes struck by the actors...and it all works!

Ms. Lambert's script preserves all the major plot devices and includes its famous quotable lines so each of the characters and their relationships come across vividly. And she has added a clever prologue and an effective "shipwreck ballet" to show how twins Viola [Jillian Walker] and Sebastian [David Umansky] each believe the other has drowned and then segues into Scene One with Viola cast ashore on Illyria where she will disguise herself as a young man and serve Count Orsino [Seth Andrew Bridges] as his go-between in courting Olivia [Michelle Geisler] who refuses Orsino's attention and falls in love with "Cesario" (the name of the disguised Viola), while Viola falls in love with Orsino who appears to have feelings for "Cesario" (i.e. Viola) -- talk about confusion and comic possibilities!

If that wasn't enough, Olivia's drunken cousin Sir Toby Belch [Logan James Hall] helps his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek [Chris Pappas] to pursue his love for Olivia; and Olivia's pretentious steward Malvolio [Jason Martin] tries to advance his social position by marrying Olivia. Malvolio is ripe for a plot hatched by Sir Toby and cohorts to make a fool out of him.

In the middle of all this is Olivia's fool Feste [Jim Staudt] who moves easily in all three "worlds" of the play: Olivia's household, Orsino's court, and the group who plot against Malvolio. Mr. Staudt's antics are infectious and his physical flexibility is admirable; and he is matched by the rest of the cast whose commitment and passion contribute to the success of the production. Mr. Bridges' excessively romanticized behavior as a love-sick suitor more in love with being in love than with Olivia is close to perfection; Ms. Geisler's change from haughty rejection of Orsino to adolescent yearning for the young man "Cesario" is subtle and engaging; Mr. Umansky is earnest as Sebastian and the unexpected attention from Olivia who confuses him with "Cesario" is received with immediate acceptance; Mr. Hall and Mr. Pappas make an exceptional double-act as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew; Mr. Martin's comeuppance as Malvolio is one of extraordinary invention (the famous "letter scene" followed by his wearing yellow stockings and cross-garters to win Olivia is a highlight of this production); and Viola's dilemma in maintaining her disguise while falling in love with Orsino, holding Olivia at bay, and almost fighting a duel with Sir Andrew, is achieved with simplicity and absolute credibility.

Of course, Sebastian and Viola can't appear on-stage together till the end, though there are several complications that bring them inexorably together in time to save most everyone except Malvolio from embarrassment or physical harm.

Tara Houston's clever scenic design [several surprising and simple shifts of the set] is flexible for the touring company; Tom Rodman's lighting and Jacob Sullivan's sound serve the play and punctuate the action; and Elizabeth Novak's stunning Victorian-era costumes are both appropriate to the period and vividly help in creating characters that are simultaneously silly and grounded in reality.

Under Ms. Lambert's expert direction, the Intern Acting Company's ensemble performances make this Twelfth Night one of the most entertaining and enjoyable productions of Shakespeare in recent memory.