In Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s boldly beautiful fantasy-drama ‘The River Bride,’ projections are used to dazzling effect, creating sunrises and sunsets, starry skies, and rain-soaked jungles. Projections play also a significant part in Christopher Liam Moore’s equally bold – but far less consistently satisfying — staging of Shakespeare’s gender-bendy Twelfth Night. Amongst Shakespeare’s most popular and enduring comedies, Twelfth Night is the story of a grieving, shipwrecked woman named Viola (played her by the effectively tom-boyish Sara Bruner), disguising herself as a young man while making her way in a strange land—and since lands don’t get any stranger than Hollywood, the story has been moved from ancient Illyria (aka Croatia) to Tinseltown of the 1930s. Viola soon finds herself at the center of an entertainingly uncomfortable triangle of unrequited love, balancing her sense of loss (she believes her brother just drowned in the shipwreck that her here) with the bipolar giddiness of new love.
The show opens with a black-and-white “newsreel,” firmly establishing the movie-world premise, cleverly tossing in a crowd-pleasing “Illyria Studios” logo, complete with roaring bear. An onstage pianist plays an appropriate soundtrack to the ensuing mayhem, which includes one of the Bard’s best cast of supporting players—a grieving, also somewhat love-struck, washed-up movie star and full-time drunken uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Daniel T. Parker); a gleefully clueless, martini-swilling suitor (Danforth Comins); a pleasantly acerbic song-and-dance comedian (Rodney Gardiner), and Olivia’s assistant, the tender-hearted yet not-to-be-trifled with Mariah (Kate Mulligan). That’s only one of about two-dozen major alterations Moore has made to Shakespeare’s play, practically daring purists to ask whether it is acceptable to shoehorn Shakespeare’s plays into containers they don’t quite fit into. In answer to that question, Moore takes a tip from Cinderella’s stepsisters, and simply lops off anything that doesn’t fit. If that notion offends you, then you probably won’t be able to enjoy the messy, mirthful, emotionally powerful, slapstick-driven, frequently confusing, constantly inventive, occasionally frustrating, even angering, but often joy-filled and free-spirited, totally manic-depressive overhaul of Shakespeare’s classic story.
Much of this doesn’t work, but just as much of it does. Once attached as assistant to Illyria Studios’ owner and primary movie director Duke Orsino (Elijah Alexander, spouting a pouty German accent, and generally behaving so oddly as to make his usually magnetic character almost attraction-free), Viola—using the name Cesario—becomes her/his boss’s reluctant emissary, taking love notes to the beautiful, suddenly reclusive, Olivia (a stunning, and stunningly good Gina Daniels), who is grieving the recent death of her father and brother. In a flash, she falls in love with Cesario/Viola, who’s already fallen in love with Orsino. Complicating matters is the recent arrival in town of Viola’s presumed-dead twin brother Sebastian, also played by Bruner. That choice, to have one performer play both Viola and Sebastian, solves one of the biggest problems inherent in Shakespeare’s text, which is that in Illyria – sorry, in Hollywood! – everyone keeps confusing the two identical twins for each other. Well, in this production, that’s east to see why, because, despite Bruner’s careful attention to giving each twin a different body posture, even the audience becomes occasionally confused about which one is which. That confusion is just one of the problem’s Moore’s “solution” brings with it. The ending, for example, when the twins finally see each other for the first time, is assailed here in a truly creative and impressively high-tech fashion, but unfortunately it is entirely drama crushing and momentum-killing. Yes. It’s true to the Silver Screen theme of the production, but like an enormous FX overload at the end of a superhero movie, it’s so big it distracts from the joy of the moment, and from the simple, honest and beautiful emotional truth the actors have worked so hard to create.
And then, Moore suddenly regains that lost sense of joy by re-embracing the Hollywood concept one last time, in a lavish, curtain-closing tap dancing spectacle featuring the entire cast in tuxedos and gowns, joining together in an upbeat Cole Porter-style setting of the song Shakespeare wrote to close the show, with a few additional lyrics borrowed from one of the Bard’s sonnets.
Whether you leave this transgressive, transcendent staging of ‘Twelfth Night’ believing it to be a hot mess with a large number of brilliant moments, or an ingenious production with a fair number of bold-but-astounding failures, will ultimately depend entirely on your own personal tastes.
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