Quantum Theatre’s “Twelfth Night” Show Review
“I could marry this wench for this device….”
Perhaps the least well-known, but significant, fact about Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is that it is the only Shakespeare possessing two titles. The play’s actual title is Twelfth Night, or What You Will, which fits the play more precisely, as there is no Shakespeare play which calls for more suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. Mistaken-identity farces were nothing new is Shakespeare’s time; it takes an extra leap of reason, however, to believe that a woman could be mistaken for a man, and vice versa, fraternal twins or not, but if you can’t get past that, then you’re watching the wrong play, anyway.
The Twelfth Night holiday itself has its roots in the notion of The World Turned Upside Down—the “Twelfth day of Christmas,” meaning January 5th, was often a sort of “Boxing Day,” in which servants became lords and vice versa—that, and a wintertime Mardi Gras—a last interval of wild celebration before the rest of the long, cold winter was to be endured. Shakespeare’s play, supposedly written originally for a Twelfth Night celebration, fits right into this context. Very little is as it seems in the eyes of the characters—part of the fun is that the audience is in on all of the jokes, while the characters often are not.
In this light, there may not be a better Shakespearean play for Quantum Theatre to stage than Twelfth Night. I missed their production of Maria de Buenos Aires, staged at the East Liberty YMCA, but I did catch When the Rain Stops Falling at the Iron City Brewery in Lawrenceville. For those of you unfamiliar with Quantum’s history, you read that right. Quantum takes particular delight in staging productions in, shall we say, non-traditional venues, perhaps in the spirit of the old-style “traveling players.” So when I heard they were putting on Twelfth Night at The West Penn Hospital Foundation Research Facility, under the Millvale Street Bridge, I was less surprised than I had been in the past.
In any stage production, the stage itself can be seen as a member of the cast, the way the narrator can be seen as a character in the novel. Before the action even gets going, the audience is sitting down and checking out the surroundings, so a kind of a tone is set even before the first curtain. There’s no curtain in this production—one could argue there isn’t even a stage. There we were, on bleachers, constructed specifically for the occasion, trying to tell ourselves we weren’t looking at the ass end of a hospital, but it wasn’t easy, as we gazed perplexedly at bare concrete, railings, steps, windows, press-the-bar doors, other doors that looked like they led to boiler rooms. Perhaps only a work of Shakespeare, with so many levels of meaning crammed into nothing but the dialogue, COULD survive in such a context, relying only on nothing but the words and the people speaking them to carry the show. (OK, maybe an Ibsen play, too.)
That’s not to say the play goes on in front of a blank white background, however. Director Karla Boos works the setting into the production in many amusing ways, such as Malvolio using the buzz-box next to the door to page “Milady,” or Sir Toby Belch playing an electronic keyboard, using a stationary garbage can as a stand, and dropping the keyboard into the can when he’s done. They must have simply resigned themselves to the choruses of cicadas joining in the fun, and all they could do about the train noises was hope they didn’t drown too much out.
The “right” way to start the play, meaning the way the freaking thing is written, is with Orsino, Duke of Ilyria, entering from stage left or right with a black cloud over his head, sighing heavily and uttering perhaps the most contemptibly self-pitying lines in all of Shakespeare: “If music be the food of love, play on / Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken, and so die.” (He could do us all a favor and kill himself right there, but then there wouldn’t be a play, now would there?) It was common, however, in Elizabethan times, not to mention into the present day, for the company to add on a brief piece of its own invention, just to let the audience know that it’s a show and to remind the rabble that they’re supposed to have fun. So starting things off with two minstrels isn’t too much of a stretch, even though one of them is playing not a lyre, but a (Holy Anachronism, Batman!) ukulele, and they’re singing a song, “Pale Moon,” by Kristin Andreassen, written at most ten years ago. Why not, indeed?
I was especially pleased to recognize Andrew Swackhamer on the ukulele, having admired his work in Into the Woods at the New Hazlett Theater just last month. Swackhamer doesn’t have one of the juicy parts—he plays several incidental parts instead. However, while there’s always someone else in the scene with more lines than he has, he’ll still get your attention, and never at the expense of any other player.
If Twelfth Night has a lead role, however, it’s Viola, played here by Robin Abramson. Abramson did an excellent job in When the Rain Stops Falling, so I missed some of her opening lines when I grabbed my program off the “floor” to see if she was indeed the performer I remembered from last year. My curiosity satisfied, I was able to enjoy the rest of her performance that much more. It a sense, she has to play two roles—Viola being herself, and Viola being Cesario—in my view, she pulls off the challenge with room to spare, making us forget the bedraggled waif in Act I, Scene ii, as she goes about her pageboy duties. If I see her name in another program, I’ll be doubly pleased, although I also wonder how much longer she’ll be working in Pittsburgh.
Lead role aside, you simply cannot have a good Twelfth Night without a good Malvolio. This is a particular bone of contention for me personally—I had a high school English teacher who had played this part onstage, and once treated us to his own interpretation of the character, so Gregory Lehane, playing the part here, had an especially tough act to follow in this writer’s eyes. I have seen other portrayals as well—usually, he’s played more flamboyantly, “to the hilt,” as the saying goes, so he’ll later fall from a greater height. Lehane has a more understated approach, going more for icy condescension in the first act, which sets him up plenty high as well, and he absolutely owns the stage, not to mention the crowd, in Act II, as the butler, who, instead of doing it, has it done to him.
I’d also like to give a shout-out to Sean Sears, playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek. His name alone makes him a figure of ridicule, so the actor who plays him really has to live up to it. As the sidekick to John Gresh’s Sir Toby Belch, more your basic Falstaffian “roaring drunk type,” Sir Andrew is the bumbling buffoon to Sir Toby’s straight man. Sears rises to this challenge well, with marvelous facial expressions, playing well not only off Gresh’s consistently solid deadpan, but making the other players who interact with Sir Andrew funnier as well.
If one follows the old high school English class rule, Twelfth Night is a comedy, because everybody gets married at the end, whereas in a tragedy, everybody dies at the end. Twelfth Night usually gets lumped in with the comedies for this reason, but it’s also often mentioned in the context of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” meaning it’s only a comedy on the surface. It wouldn’t be fair to call Twelfth Night a farce—there’s too much darkness in it—maybe “tragicomedy” is the best label to stick on it. Then again, categorizing is for the academics, not the audience, so why overthink it? Quantum Theatre obviously had a lot of fun putting this show together—you can see it in how much fun the actors have performing it. The show is in town through August 21st–join the fun while you can.
When can I see the Twelfth Night in Pittsburgh?
Between July 29, 2011 – August 21, 2011
Shows are on Wed/Thurs/Fri/Sat/Sun at 8:00pm
Where is it?
West Penn Hospital Foundation Research Facility
720 Gross Street (map)
Pittsburgh, PA 15224
How much is it?
Wednesday/Thursday/Sunday – $35
Friday – $40
Saturday – $45
*Student tickets are available for $18 with ID