On Friday afternoon, I saw a rare thing indeed. I saw a perfect performance of Twelfth Night.
I've always admired the productions put on by the Great River Shakespeare Festival, but I was even more impressed than usual with Director Paul Barnes' Twelfth Night. The usual adjectives describing a Great River Shakespeare Festival performance—magnificent, marvelous, compelling, brilliant—are inadequate. Perfect is the only word.
Friday's performance redeemed the play for me. I've had a checkered past with Twelfth Night. My first encounter with Twelfth Night was on a grade school field trip. I was amazed at how much spit the actors produced, how funny my classmates thought that was (I was more interested than amused), and how much energy the actors expended while leaping about singing "Hold Thy Peace." In short, I enjoyed it very much.
And then Trevor Nunn's 1996 film version of the play came along. The film was so dark, dreary, and depressing that it put me entirely off the play. After that, I taught the play a few times in introductory literature classes, but without much interest and with very little passion.
In short, any production of Twelfth Night had a very long way to go to convince me of the humor, significance, and value of the play. The Great River Shakespeare Festival's production tore up all my doubts and left them in the dust by the side of the road a thousand miles away.
The production avoids every trap into which it could have fallen. Its melancholy parts are poignant and deep, but they do not tip the balance of the play into despondency. The humorous parts are hysterically funny, but they never descend into pointlessness. Malvolio's imprisonment is treated seriously but not with sadistic cruelty, and his response is measured, not casting a pall over the reconciliations at the end of the play.
Moreover, every single role was cast and played perfectly. Secondarily, the music was carefully and thoughtfully integrated into the play as a whole. Sixth and lastly, the set was beautifully constructed. Thirdly, the choreography—particularly of the scene in which Malvolio finds the letter—was brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. And, to conclude, the Great River Shakespeare Festival has produced a perfect Twelfth Night.
I could go on for days about the magnificent details of this production, but I need to curb my enthusiasm and keep myself to mentioning just a few small points.
The production is set in Victorian England at Christmas time. The costumes are generally dark and somber, fitting the mourning and melancholy that are, in part, the play's concerns. That somber look is balanced by the music and revelry. The characters (particularly those affiliated with Sir Toby Belch) occasionally break into a rowdy wassail, perfectly complementing the play's more somber moments. The show also made incredible use of the folk song "The Water is Wide" throughout. It became a theme of separation and eventual reunion and reconciliation.
Jonathan Gillard Daly's Feste was simply superb. His singing voice and his acting are at the topmost level, but he casually and seemingly-effortlessly delivers Feste's witty lines and songs. They felt completely comfortable and sustaining. The music for Feste's songs was written for this production, and it was magnificent. Indeed, if I were absolutely forced to admit that this production had some flaw somewhere, I would very reluctantly say that having live music (as the Great River Shakespeare Festival did with its Comedy of Errors in 2010) rather than canned would give even greater flexibility and depth to the excellencies of the performance.
Daly's Feste is also one who knows much. When he exits in Act I, scene v, he gives Malvolio a prophetic glance as he says "the fool shall look to the madman" (I.v.137-38). He also starts saying "Sir" with great, incredulous emphasis during an early exchange with Viola-disguised-as-Cessario. This gave a great and pleasing wisdom to the fool.
I was completely floored by Christopher Gerson's Malvolio. He played the sour and demanding steward with empathy, bringing out his honest sense of duty to Olivia to balance his less-pleasing characteristics. And he played Malvolio's imagination—both before and after his discovery of the letter—so vividly that we saw his every thought. Peter Saccio, who has lectured on this scene and who will be speaking at the Great River Shakespeare Festival later this summer, will be immensely pleased at Gerson's rendition of the character.
Gerson also was able, in the scene where the letter instructs him to smile, to keep the audience in hysterical laughter for three full minutes without saying a word. The experience was unparalleled—although we laughed nearly as much when he re-entered in yellow stockings (and a costume likewise vibrant with yellow). The dark and somber costuming and set design would be worth it if it only served as a contrast to Malvolio's yellow outfit.
Sir Toby Belch (Michael Fitzpatrick) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Chris Mixon) formed an astonishing pair, particularly when joined by Fabian (Brian White) and Maria (Laura Jacobs). Their comic timing could not have been better. Especially (but not exclusively) in the trickery scene, they hit the laugh lines and actions absolutely right—particularly when Fitzpatrick, Mixon, and White had to disguise themselves suddenly as a nativity scene under the Christmas tree behind which they had been hiding. Genius.
Tarah Flanagan's Viola was moving and funny and touching and remarkable. She was able to convey the bifurcated nature of her position—wishing to serve Orsino in his wooing of Olivia while desiring his love for herself—in a deeply sympathetic way. She was also able to banter with Feste, critique (and compliment) Olivia, and react to the news that her brother was still alive in extraordinarily complex ways. Flanagan's versatility as an actor was able to bring out the versatility in the character in astounding ways.
Too many other marvelous things happened in this performance to list, let alone to detail. I wish I could say more about the role of The Caroler (played by Doug Scholz-Carlson), who, Chorus-like, introduced us to the background of the play and served a something of a foil to Feste; the distribution of Christmas ornaments during the curtain call—and Malvolio's reception of only a lump of coal; the slapstick surrounding the fight between Viola and Sir Andrew; the decisions Paul Barnes made as director; and the power Corey Allen brought to the role of Orsino. Instead, I must on your imaginary forces work to fill that in—or, better yet, you can see the show yourself.
I do admonish each of you to get to the Great River Shakespeare Festival this year to see a perfect Twelfth Night.
Bonus Image: The Fool and King Lear from the Great River Shakespeare Festival's 2012 season.
Links: The Great River Shakespeare Festival.