Let’s drop all pretenses. I’ll get to the details in a second, using big words and nice descriptions. First I want to say: “Twelfth Night” is great; it’s that simple.
Well … no, it’s not that simple because to do something so awesome isn’t really simple at all. What Alchemical Theatre Company has done with their production is exactly how Shakespeare should be updated for a modern audience. Everyone connected to it should be applauded—and hell, they should get sold-out houses every night, quite frankly.
When venturing to live theatre, the works of William Shakespeare are like the metaphorical box of chocolates Forrest Gump’s mom once described: “You never know what you are going to get.” Will the director be steadfast in keeping tradition by presenting that boy seeing that girl at that windowsill for the, I don’t know, millionth time? Or will you see Batman getting stabbed in the back by the Super Friends at the foot of the Hall of Justice, saying “Et tu Flash?” There is a vast wheelhouse for where one could and does take the Bard’s timeless stories.
Luckily for the audience, “Twelfth Night” director Christopher Marino has a sharp eye and wit—enough to know how to reshape the presentation without manipulating the source. He takes the well-aged tale of missed connections and misdirection and imbibes it with the pace of an ‘80s summer comedy, wrapped in the world of Lars Von Trier’s “Dogville.” It’s a madcap, carnival-like world of imagination and I would enjoy to live in it.
Taking the already lyrical text, the production seamlessly splices in original folk songs composed by Adrian Varnam. The music introduces the audience to the world of the play and carries it through the plot ‘til the end. Its music goes from fun, little drunken ditties to full-on sorrowful songs of love lost. The music lulls the viewer into a dreamscape mindset that most Shakespeare plays exist in. Keegen Siebken (face-painted with awesome clown makeup) is the court’s fool, Feste. He plucks away his guitar and serenades the audience as they file into their seats. He subtly gives way to the complex style the play’s blocking undertakes.
The show is done in a promenade theatre style—somewhat like staging in the round but with a more abstract shape to the actor’s playground. The play is immersive and interactive, to say the very least, and is championed well by the set, which comes together like Lego blocks designed by Max Lydy. It glides from one spot to the next with ease, never once impeding the show’s pace, which is a true praise to the craftsmanship of master carpenter Ross Helton’s work.
The set is companioned with outstanding lighting design by John McCall; strings of lights drape over and down from the arena’s ceiling. It forms everything from twinkling stars in intimate moments between lovers, to illuminating street lights during the jovial bits, in which fools and drunks roam. He creates a vicious lightning storm indoors that immediately captures the audience’s attention at the top of the play; it’s quite mesmerizing.
Throughout the show, cast-off scenes play out in all corners of the theatre. It has the audience’s necks careening about but adds to the overall whimsical vibe of the play. With the show’s interactive nature, there are a few ground rules the audience members must follow. They are hilariously laid out by Josh Browner, Katherine Carr and Tony Choufani, who perform the Greek chorus, essentially. Within the prologue the trio shines and sets the quick banter the rest of the show engages in. Throwing the gauntlet down, this is the best curtain speech I have ever seen or heard. A close ear is needed but rewarded.
The audience is thrust into action with a ferocious storm that tosses a ship around at sea. It’s a successful effect thanks to the collaboration of the lighting and set designs. Here we witness the separation of the dual protagonists, Viola (Esther Williamson) and Sebastian (Paul Teal), twins who believe the other to be dead after the storm. We jump ahead some time to learn the fate of the twins: To survive off the coast of Illyria, Sebastian has become something of a smuggler/pirate while Viola has slyly tricked her way into the court of Duke Orsino (Michael Dix Thomas) and poses as a eunuch, Cesario, to conceal her high-pitched voice.
Williamson and Teal anchor the play perfectly, both giving way to the comedy and tragedy of situations as they unfold. Teal is apt for the leading-man role, bouncing between foil and hero, depending on who he interacts with. He always commands the scene.
Williamson’s Viola is the true heart of the play; through her pumps the life blood for the rest of the production to come to life. Her eyes alone tell more of the story than most can with their entire person. Her want for the duke comes across honestly, as something built over time, while her frustration over unwanted advancements is truly funny. It’s good work and covers a full range.
Ruling over the lands of Illyria, are the equally matched Lady Olivia (Shanara Gabrielle) and the aforementioned Duke Orsino. They bicker with their underlings, as if they truly knew what strife was. Each hits wonderful notes of comedy and believably gives off the regal presentation of royalty. They form a complicated love triangle half the plot works through, as they play tug-of-war with Viola, even if both are blind to the game.
“Twelfth Night” really goes to the fools, though. Fred Grandy plays the lovable drunk we all want in our lives: Lady Olivia’s get-rich-quick scheming cousin, Sir Toby. I never knew how much I loved Shakespeare by way of Martin Scorsese until Anthony Police brought the “Goodfellas” vibe to the role of Fabian.
The clown-faced fool, Feste, is brought to glorious life by Keegen Siebken. Even through his bottomless sense of humor, it’s painfully apparent he is only laughing on the outside. His smile is merely painted on, and if one could see inside they may even join him for a weep.
Among all the talent, Ashley Strand goes above and beyond in losing himself as Sir Andrew (a suiter for the fair Lady Olivia). He is the perfect imaginary friend—think Drop Dead Fred by way of Mr. Bean. The only brighter light than his exuberant physical and comedic timing is the yellow plaid suit he wears—oh, and his king of comb-overs he sports with pride.
The players come together to form an exceptional ensemble—each building upon the other’s performance to form a magnificent whole. But if ever I was asked to select a favorite, begrudgingly I would pick Eric Bailey’s Malvolio. The majordomo for Lady Olivia, he enters every scene with such pomp and circumstance, all forced to deal with him find themselves in the shade of his nose, as he looks down upon them. All but Lady Olivia that is, who he harbors an unrequited love, which is gleefully manipulated in one of the show’s most painfully funny moments. Of all branching plot threads, his is the one left the most open-ended, but that’s nothing controlled by the production itself.
The alchemy Alchemical Theatre Company has truly turned the stage to gold and illuminates the magic of theatre. They craft a show for theatre lovers, music lovers, Shakespeare lovers, and generally anyone who loves to see the arts executed cleanly and precisely. Still, there are some aspects of the production I just didn’t get. A wise, old wizard once said, “Shut up, Mr. Burton! You were not brought upon this world to get it!” So, for those willing to roll with some great theatre, this is a real treat. Marino has taken his sharpened scalp to the works of the Bard yet again—and again the surgery was a complete success.