Chris Marino never plays it completely straight when bringing Shakespeare productions to life. In 2016 he set “Measure for Measure” in Raleigh, NC, post-election, with conservatives taking over the rule of land. In 2017 he turned “Much Ado About Nothing” into a post-Civil War drama. Now, as the Lumina Arts Festival gets underway on UNCW’s campus, his theatre company, Alchemical Theatre of Wilmington, will bring to life the comical “Twelfth Night” or “What You Will.” The director is loosely basing the 17th-century play around Weimar culture, which saw an emergence of the arts and sciences in Weimar Republic during the interwar period WWI and Hitler’s rise to power. “I do think if people are expecting to see a Weimar play, they will most likely be disappointed,” Marino notes.
The UNCW Department of Theatre professor is only giving a nod to the period—a framework to riff off of, so to speak. The extremity of its art evokes theatricality, according to Marino. “It matches the romanticism and extremity of emotions felt by Orsino and Olivia [in ‘Twelfth Night’],” he explains.
To appropriately pull it off, Marino looks to follow the “rules” of Shakespeare to successfully transform its setting. First, Marino needed this world to support the idea of status, wherein titles like “Knight” can exist.
“So you may see some Weimar Republic touches in costumes [by Jessica Gaffney], but we’re certainly not setting it in Germany in the late ‘20s or early ‘30s,” he clarifies.
He has brought back the musical prowess of Adrian Varnam as well, who worked on “Measure for Measure” and “Much Ado.” Varnam and Marino have formed a creative hive, where original soundscapes help set the tone and add to the story arc. They hope Shakespeare’s multi-dimensionality helps make the play immersive. Marino passed along the timeline and setting of the show to Varnam, who than began research and listened to a lot of modern, Brechtian cabaret acts, like The Tiger Lillies and The Dresden Dolls.
“All of the music in ‘Twelfth Night’ is original and runs the gamut, from improvised underscoring to fully formed songs, lyrically written into the text by Shakespeare,” Varnam says. “I write original melodies and orchestration that fits somewhere in that universe.”
Though the music is more reserved than say the dark, rollicking Dresden Dolls, it’s only as much because of being performed in a smaller space. Marino has enlisted the help of set designer May Lydy to “build areas that allow actors to get above the audience so that everyone in the space can see.” Actors will move freely in the SRO black box theatre, and in and around the audience, interacting and such.
“We’ve scattered the instrumentation among some of the cast and around the space itself,” Varnam explains. “So we’ve got actors playing guitars, pianos, an accordion, a ukulele, and lots of vocalization.”
“I think our collaboration is really great and integral to the shows I do,” Marino says. “I have real issues with canned music in theatre; it never works because you are juxtaposing organic acting against something that is inorganic and stuck in time. Shakespeare wrote his plays for live music, it only makes sense that we follow his lead.”
However, Marino is slow to allow the production to be taken over or encumbered by concept or period. The context in which he presents “Twelfth Night” must help the audience understand character motivation. “For example, if we fully embraced Weimar culture, the character Malvolio could be interpreted as an early brownshirt and usher in the turn toward fascism. While it could be an interesting take, it is certainly not the place Shakespeare wrote.”
Yet, the Bard did take on the fact that women did not have rights in the 16th and 17th centuries. They weren’t allowed think on their own accord or take care of themselves. They were essentially property of men—either a father or husband. Thus is the reason many women crossdress in his productions: for their own safety.
“It makes for great drama and comedy,” Marino tells. “Still, we have to be very careful when we choose frameworks for plays; they have to uphold rules within the text but not usurp the story.”
“Twelfth Night” sees as much with the character of Viola, who becomes “Cesario,” after she’s shipwrecked and separated by her twin brother, Sebastian. Viola dresses up as a male in order to work under Duke Orsino, for whom she is in love. But the duke is in love with a countess, Olivia, who in turn manages to fall for Viola-dressed-as-Cesario. Several characters make up the hijinks: Malvolio, Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, servants Maria and Fabian, a sea captain, and a fool, Feste.
Marino has a long history with “Twelfth Night,” having put it on numerous times over the last two decades. While he focused his first productions more toward the farcical side, today he is approaching it with more of a balance.
“There is definitely a core of pain and longing that runs underneath its text; it pops out in little fits and starts,” he clarifies. “It’s a wonderful challenge to attempt to get the balance right. The play moves on so quickly that, once you establish a moment of delicacy and pain, it wants you to turn away and embrace comedy. The text turns on a dime. . . . Shakespeare being a transcendent writer reflects wonderfully human tendency in his text.”
The production features a well of talent, some of whom Marino has worked with throughout the years: Esther Williamson (Viola), Paul Teal (Sebastian), Shanara Gabrielle (Olivia), Paula Hubman-Daniel (Maria), Eric Bailey (Malvolio), Fred Grandy (Sir Toby), Ashley Strand (Sir Andrew), Keegan Siebken (Feste), Michael Thomas Dix (Orsino), Anthony Police (Fabian), Nick Battiste (Antonio), Sea Captail (Josh Browner) and Tony Choufani (Curio/Priest). It’s a homecoming for Marino and company.
“We have actors from two different versions of ‘Twelfth Night’ that I directed, one in 1999 and one in 2003,” he says. “It’s been thrilling to watch people from various companies in my past career get together and collaborate as a cast.”
Paula Hubman-Daniel played Maria in 1999, while Shanara Gabrielle and Eric C. Bailey took on Olivia and Malvolio. Ashley Strand played Orsino.
“I learned a few words wrong and unlearning those is a challenge,” Gabrielle quips. “We want it to be word-perfect! Playing Olivia ignites in me the kind of excitement all the great Shakespeare women do. I love she gets to run the gamut of experiences: mourning, to lust, to rejection, to love, and everything in between.”
Gabrielle appreciates the intricacy of character development in Shakespeare: Every role propels forward the story and interweaves human experiences across the spectrum. Even though women weren’t seen as equals during his time, Shakespeare often wrote them with great depth.
“I love her intelligence and wit,” Hubman-Daniel tells of her third performance as Maria. “She comes up with the hilarious plan to fool and humiliate the uptight steward Malvolio.”
Bailey as Malvolio has played his character three times now. “The most challenging thing for me in this production is making my choices honest, but fresh,” he notes. “I love [Malvolio’s] dedication and desire for order. No matter how much he misinterprets the world or letters he finds, he just wants some consistency and order.”
One of the reasons Marino loves “Twelfth Night” is because of how relatable the characters are, across the board. They want relief and excitement from the daily grind. Thus audiences connect with snippets of each for different reasons.
“I see myself in my 20s in Orsino: falling in love and falling in love with the idea being in love,” Marino notes. “I identify with Viola’s longing, and how she sees the world through her heart. I understand the extremities that Olivia goes through; from extreme mourning to an almost maniacal love. I also understand Sebastian’s plight, spending most of his time trying not to be a burden or an inconvenience to Antonio. There’s even a little bit of Malvolio in the side of me that likes rules and order. . . . [‘Twelfth Night’] a perfect comedy. Shakespeare gets the balance of pathos and outlandish humor right. If we have done our job, it is goosebumps material. We hope the audience feels that.”