Twelfth Night

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By Philip Pearce

THERE’S LOTS TO LIKE about PacRep’s new outdoor Twelfth Night.

It’s a “concept” production, and that’s a term that rouses the wrath of some Shakespeare traditionalists. But every Shakespeare production is, in fact, based on a concept. Doublet and hose or sweaty tee-shirts, the director, cast and design team have to deliberately decide how to stage a script which, apart from entrances and exits, has no stage directions. When a sea captain tells Viola near the beginning of Twelfth Night “This is Illyria, lady,” Shakespeare offers no further guidance. Illyria could be a suburb of Stratford, an attraction at Disneyland, a country on outer Pluto. What’s your concept?

A production I saw this summer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival decided Illyria was a 1930s Hollywood movie studio. You were impressed with a director clever enough to keep a company of actors dressed like Claudette Colbert and William Powell racing through familiar lines and events in a way that kept at bay most of the ideas and attitudes Shakespeare seemed to have had in mind when he wrote the play.

Watching Kenneth Kelleher and a committed Pacific Repertory cast at work on the stage of the Outdoor Forest Theater last weekend was a very different experience. Where Ashland offered a cute idea that struggled to underplay the script, Kelleher and his company surround the text with images and innovations that enhance the story and cast fresh light on what it’s actually all about.

For starters, what is Illyria? Three big scenic pieces, all right in your face when you take your seat, suggest an answer. Upstage there’s a big, uplifted fluffy white cloud, so we’re in a world that floats around as inflated and unreal as Duke Orsino’s hifalutin’ love for a lady named Olivia too busy playing the tragedy queen to pay him any mind.

Elsewhere, there’s a huge quarter moon which only lights up when characters plug it into a socket at moments of histrionic rapture or noisy nightlife by the likes of drunkenly greedy Sir Toby Belch or chronically stupid Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

Third, there is a rowboat which arrives minutes into the first act suggesting that help is on the way for tight little self-absorbed Illyria in the person of a feisty and quick-witted foreign immigrant named Viola.

Jennifer Le Blanc is a delight in the role. When Viola follows the familiar custom of Shakespeare comic heroines by disguising herself as a boy, Le Blanc relishes the swaggering freedom of the nice pair of trousers and natty gents’ jacket she takes on as a new member of Orsino’s household staff. But she also beautifully catches the pathos of Viola’s discovery that she feels a love for her new boss that she can’t express. And to make matters worse, she also sets fire to the repressed libido of Orsino’s lady love Olivia.

The scenes between Viola and Julie Hughett’s gorgeous and irrepressible Olivia are a high point of the show. It’s fun watching Hughett provocatively in pursuit with Le Blanc adroitly avoiding capture till she’s halted in the stark horror of an extended Technicolor kiss.

It’s an evening of delicious surprises that take you deeper into both the comedy and the dark underside of the story. During scene breaks, the players form busy almost robotic patterns of movement like figures trapped in a confused dream.

I liked particularly that Sean Patrick Nill avoids the perky pointed cap capers that too often turn the fool Feste into a tiresome rollicking busybody. Nill creates a slightly scary white-faced figure whose songs are so familiar we sometimes forget they are predominantly about cold unwelcoming weather (“for the rain it raineth every day”), the uncertainty of the future and the inevitability of death. As if to offer some slight relief several of the group dance numbers feature brightly colored umbrellas. Nill’s Feste sings with a dark-edged reflective skill, playing a concertina and sometimes joined by Viola on (what else?) the violin.

As always, D. Scott McQuiston is wonderfully lively and raucous in a clown role, this one Olivia’s drunken and deceptive uncle, Sir Toby. He’s never too boozed-up to miss a concealed beer bottle or a refill of ducats from the pockets of Steven Slack’s wistfully deadpan Sir Andrew. The three-way jazz shuffle-dance of these two knights and Feste won and deserved a big hand from the opening night audience.

Justin Gordon does as well as can be expected in the thankless role of Orsino. He never tries to disguise the fact that the guy is a pretentious goof. He ends the evening, of course, paired up not with the elusive Olivia but with his overworked page Cesario who he discovers is actually a winsome lady named Viola. Like so many Shakespearean comic heroes, he’s no-way worthy of the female treasure he wins and weds.

There are a few things I found not so likeable. One is an element in the disturbing dark comedy surrounding Olivia’s killjoy household steward Malvolio. He’s admirably acted in toffy-nosed British tones and a social-climbing sneer by Howard Burnham. And the sequence where Belch, Aguecheek and Lyla Englehorn’s sassy housemaid Maria forge a phony love letter to persuade Malvolio that Olivia secretly dotes on him is a wonderful piece of over-the-top farce. But the subsequent sequence where Malvolio responds to the letter dressed, according to the script, in yellow garters?  PacRep chooses to launch Malvolio in a quantum leap from prissy Puritanism to blatant prurience by having him dress up in a sexy yellow corset obviously borrowed from a burlesque queen and “flash“ Olivia. Funny, I suppose, but comic overkill, especially since he jumps instantly back into Puritan mode.

I was puzzled too that Feste, when pretending to be the local curate Sir Topaz, turns a cleric spouting fancy details of his medieval cathedral workplace into a hairy rabbi.

But, hey, nobody and nothing is perfect. And this clever and sometimes disturbing version of Shakespeare’s great comedy is a winner worthy of your attention between now and October 16.