10 July 2016

Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare



This review starts with the same disclaimer as my last Rustic Mechanicals review: I really like the project of a dedicated Shakespeare touring troupe for West Virginia. I find their mission basically admirable.

Their performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was better than their productions of The Tempest or Much Ado About Nothing, so I was pleased with that. I think one of the reasons this show was more successful is that the clown scenes—with Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Feste, Maria, and to a certain extent Malvolio—make up a much larger proportion of Twelfth Night than they do in the other shows, and based on the three shows I’ve seen so far, clown performances seem to be the Rustic Mechanicals’ strong suit. My speculation would be that this is because clown roles can better withstand overacting because of the natural rambunctiousness of the characters. Clowns can get away with being less polished if the performances are enthusiastic, whereas more serious characters look doubly bad if they compensate for an unpolished performance by overacting.

Jason Young (Sir Toby) and Kaici Lore (Maria) probably had the most convincing pairing of the play, with Michael Vozniak (Malvolio) and Isaac Covey (Sir Andrew) in strong support. Young and Lore made Sir Toby and Maria the lively heart of the show, presenting them as intimate, conspiratorial, vivacious, and jolly. In particular Young’s predilection for song gave Sir Toby a distinctive swagger and liveliness that suited the character extremely well. Of course, without the straight man Malvolio, much of the humor of the clown scenes would be lost, and Vozniak did an admirable job playing the sneering, social climbing, quasi-puritan. Although weaker in his more serious scenes with Olivia (Gretchen Ross), Vozniak’s facial expressions were hilarious when he was surrounded by the singing and dancing Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Feste (Doug Seckman), as well as during his attempts to bend Malvolio’s puritan scowl into a smile. This is the first performance I’ve seen where I liked Covey’s work, though the timing of his lines continues to bother me.

But nothing in the clown scenes bothered me as much as the more serious scenes. Ross is a good performer, and her portrayal of Olivia effectively combined the dour haughtiness of Olivia’s mourning and the flirtatious desire of her love for Cesario. But the other serious characters—Viola/Cesario (Celi Oliveto), Orsino (Jeremiah Smallridge), and Sebastian (Steve McElroy)—didn’t sell me. There was no real chemistry between any of the lovers, though there were moments when Oliveto and Smallridge were clearly trying to act chemistry. But it didn’t really play. Their moments of looking deeply at one another and then turning suddenly away came across more as stagy melodrama than genuine emotion or desire.

The biggest disappointment of the production was Oliveto’s performance as Viola/Cesario. Now, to be fair, this is a challenging role and two of the three times I’ve seen Twelfth Night it’s been done badly. Oliveto’s primary facial expression was a kind of shocked anxiety. The performance hovered between worry about Olivia being in love with Cesario, sorry for Sebastian’s ostensible drowning, and anxiety than Orsino didn’t love her—all of which were conveyed with virtually the same facial expression. This performance collapsed Viola from a clever woman establishing control of her own situation to a scared girl paralyzed by fear (we know she’s clever because she matches wits with Feste, and we know she exercises a certain degree of control because she positions herself close to Orsino).

The other problem with the serious portions of the play—and the same problem occurred the first time I saw Twelfth Night years ago—is the desire to stand center stage and look out to the audience for every speech. For both Oliveto and McElroy, the bulk of their speeches were delivered as direct addresses to the audience. With a humorous aside it’s fine to address the audience. Give them a wink and a nudge if the mood takes you. But a soliloquy loses much of its power when spoken as though it’s in conversation with the audience. If your character is pondering something or working something out for themselves, don’t act like you’re reporting it to the audience. Consider it. Be speculative. Wander the stage space contemplatively. And if there’s other characters on stage with whom you’re having a conversation, don’t ignore them to talk directly to the audience. It looks weird.

My last critique is of the space itself. This production was hosted by MT Pockets theatre company, in their new performance space. The space needs better lighting. Right now, all the lights are set up behind the audience and shine generally toward center stage. Even putting aside the problem of not having can lighting above and to the sides of the stage, the existing lighting isn’t properly oriented. The sides of the stage are in semi-darkness, meaning that whenever a character delivers lines as they are leaving the stage, we lose the tail end of their scenes in the darkness.

Finally, I think the Rustic Mechanicals made one excellent choice with their production of Twelfth Night, which was modernizing the songs. Twelfth Night has a number of musical numbers that connect thematically to the events of the play, but because they are renaissance tunes modern performers often seem to struggle with them. To surmount this difficulty, the Rustic Mechanicals substituted modern songs played and sung largely by Seckman as Feste. The songs were well chosen, because, like the originals, they reflected the thematic concerns of particular moments in the play. For instance, Feste’s famous closing song in which he declares “The rain it raineth every day” was modernized into Blind Melon’s 90s classic “No Rain,” a song with similar themes about alienation, apathy, and yet a strange kind of hope.

3 comments:

  1. It was my first Shakespeare play that I have ever attended. Really enjoyed it, and thought the modern music was a nice touch and funny.

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  2. I don't think you fully understand how a soliloquy works in a Shakespearean play. While I agree that sometimes the message gets lost if they make eye contact with the audience and should be moving a little bit, wandering around the stage also loses the power the soliloquy works, and depending on the actor and space, the audience can lose vital information that is in said soliloquies. Standing firm and addressing an unknown presence that happens to be in the direction of the audience is a theatre device that has been used since Shakespeare's time. That's a device that even the Greeks used. This isn't some new blocking only The Rustic Mechanicals are using, it's something that EVERY theatre and EVERY actor across the globe uses, especially in Shakespearean shows.

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    1. In fact, I do know how a soliloquy works. I've delivered them myself, and I've seen them delivered by a number of actors (sometimes well and sometimes poorly).

      I don't disagree with your premise that "Standing firm and addressing an unknown presence that happens to be in the direction of the audience" can be an effective performance technique. But that isn't my critique. My critique is that the Rustic Mechanicals performance substituted proper soliloquies for conversations with the audience. Etymologically, a soliloquy involves talking to oneself. This is performed differently from when an actor talks specifically to a conversation partner--the stance, posture, and eye contact are all different. For instance, the first time I saw Twelfth Night, the actor playing Viola/Cesario took about four speeches and planted herself center stage, looked out above the audience, and spoke wistfully/musingly about the subject at hand. In my opinion, doing this more than twice blunts the meditative edge of the performance technique. But it was definitely a soliloquy. Viola was definitely working through her thoughts in the presence of the audience. In the Rustic Mechanicals performance, on the other hand, the performers (especially Oliveto) performed as though they were directly addressing the audience in conversation. When an actor hunches their body, leans toward the audience, and makes direct declarative eye contact with audience members, that signals a direct address rather than a soliloquy. My critique is that the Rustic Mechanicals substituted the inward looking performance of the soliloquy for the externalizing performance of direct audience address. Speaking to the audience is not the same as speaking in the presence of the audience.

      Also as a point of interest, we don't know how the Greeks performed (though theories abound). We have no way of knowing how if at all an ancient Greek actor would perform what we now identify as a soliloquy.

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