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Gina Daniels as Olivia and Sara Bruner as Viola. Photo by Jenny Graham.

When I sat down this evening to watch Twelfth Night, which kicked off the new season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Angus Bowmer Theatre, I wondered out loud to my seatmate whether we might be in for a bit of Busby Berkeley.

That’s because OSF’s new production of the old popular comedy, directed by Christopher Liam Moore, is set in 1930s Hollywood. Think the magic of musical comedy, show girls and glitter.

Let’s just say right up front that I wasn’t disappointed, in any way. This Twelfth Night is a spectacularly funny romp through mistaken identity, gender bending, sword fighting and, yes, those amazing Busby Berkeley movie musicals. It’s smart and good looking and doesn’t miss a beat for the entire three-hour show.

It offers the funniest Shakespearean sword fight I’ve ever seen in my entire life, a jaw dropping visual effect that actually contributes to the plot, and a foot tapping tip of the hat to Forty-Second Street. What could be better?

The story is Shakespeare craziness through and through. Viola, played with great charm and assurance by Sara Bruner, has been shipwrecked while traveling with her twin brother Sebastian. She survives, and, he seemingly, doesn’t. She takes on the dress of a young man, calls herself Cesario, and arrives at the Illyria studio in Hollywood, run by Duke Orsino.

Romance flies confusingly in all directions from this point, and comedy ensues as everyone falls in love with the wrong person.

Much of the laughter comes from a comic ensemble made up of Daniel T. Parker as Toby Belch, Kate Mulligan as Maria, Danforth Comins as Andrew Aguecheek and Rodney Gardiner as the musical Feste.

Parker is a comic genius. You may recall his sweet, roly poly mobster Nicely Nicely Johnson in last season’s Guys and Dolls; as Toby Belch he’s got a harder edge, something like W.C. Fields with a touch of John Goodman thrown in. He forms the axis for most of this show’s physical comedy.

Moore’s direction is spot on, as is Jaclyn Miller’s choreography. Everyone moves like organic clockwork. Christopher Acebo’s set is a beautiful example of great design on a moderate budget, fusing color, a few black and white projections and a sweeping staircase to frame the play simply and well.

Twelfth Night includes many songs, which are here accompanied by pianist Ron Ochs, on stage for the whole show.

There’s a very clever special effect near the end of Act Two that had this evening’s audience gasping with wonder. Without giving it away, the device resolves a question that pops up the moment you look at the cast list (wait, who is playing Sebastian?) and that is central to the plot.

Finally, the show wraps up with that enthusiastic nod to Busby Berkeley, disco ball and all. I hope the rest of the season is as good.

 

A COUPLE MORE THOUGHTS on the MORNING AFTER, with a SPOILER ALERT:

I woke up thinking about Twelfth Night, which is always a clue that the play was good. That stunning special effect is worth mentioning in more depth, but to do so requires telling you what it is. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know.

Near the end of the play, the lost Sebastian appears – but only in the form of a slightly blurry figure projected in black and white on a movie screen just behind the other characters. This is Hollywood, right?

The stunning part comes when Viola walks into the screen to join her brother. OK, she doesn’t exactly walk into it; she walks behind it, and at that moment her black and white image joins Sebastian.

This is a breathtaking transition, a great surprise, and it’s done seamlessly. One minute she’s on stage in front of the audience; the next, she’s in the movie talking to her brother. It works terrifically well, and it turns the play on its head.

That’s because of this: While Viola goes in and out of this dark, flickering movieworld a couple times with ease, Sebastian never exits the screen. She can navigate the transition, and he can’t. He’s imprisoned, ghost like, in the world of magic, and we get the strong feeling that it’s definitely black magic.

One reading of this is profound: Sebastian really is dead and stays dead.

The production leaves all this perfectly ambiguous. When Viola rejoins Orsino at the end of the story, at last able to consummate their budding romance, she walks off arm in arm not only with him but also with Olivia, who is smitten with Sebastian (of course still thinking he is Cesario). The traditional telling is that all ends well with the two couples; in this version, only Viola appears, and Olivia may only be able to romance Sebastian though his living sister.

Brilliantly done, and great fun.

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