OREM — Now that summer is here, there are a number of shows that have begun cropping up in local parks and outdoor amphitheaters. One group that has made themselves a staple for outdoor theatre goers is the Grassroots Shakespeare Company. Their latest endeavor, Twelfth Night, is an extremely fun show in a great environment.
The atmosphere and process of a Grassroots show are, to me, just as important to my enjoyment of the evening as the show itself. First of all, Grassroots is free, open-air theatre company that performs in local parks. This makes the whole show seem very informal and fun; almost as if you had a group of friends who got together and decided they just wanted to do a show. Actually, that scenario is not too far from the truth. The company is based on what is called “original practice” Shakespeare, which means that they try to keep their process and performance similar to what Shakespeare would have done in Elizabethan times.
One major part of “original practice” is the lack of a director. Usually in reviews we try to talk about the director, the costume designer, etc. But for Twelfth Night and other Grassroots shows, the actors simply work together to direct themselves as a group, and the costumes are pulled from what’s at home. And it works. For the most part, the play flowed very well and kept a quick pace that allowed the audience to stay involved (literally). The costume pieces were just enough to help us understand which actor was playing which character and clued us in just a little as to how we should feel about them. It was nothing fancy, but it worked. There were even fun little nuances, like the twin characters of Sebastian (Cameron Bench) and Viola (Aubrey Bench) dressing in matching colors, with Viola’s clothing being quite “mannish” and Sebastian’s being a little “girly.” It was something that doesn’t even become that apparent until the final scene, but it was nice to see that there was a little thought put into the rag-tag costumes.
The acting was very well done. It’s a rather silly show with a lot of mistaken identities, cross-dressing, and typical Shakespearean bawdiness, but the cast didn’t let the fun get in the way of understanding. The actors, many of whom seemed to have previous classic acting experience, focused on communication with the audience and made the show extremely accessible. This feat is especially impressive considering that, in total, the show was only rehearsed for about 20 hours and the majority of the actors are also participating in the other two Grassroots shows this summer (Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream). This is also something that comes from the idea of “original practice.” While the ensemble was enjoyable as a whole, I would say that my favorite performance of the evening was that of Kyle Oram who played Sir Andrew. Oram’s comedic timing was impeccable and his commitment to his character was unflappable. I always wanted him to come back on stage and have another scene, or to say another few lines. Another solid performance came from Trevor Robertson as Malvolio. Robertson was able to really get his body into the character and used some truly impressive facial expressions to create a wonderfully despicable character.
Twelfth Night also has a couple of Shakespeare’s better female roles. The roles of Viola and Olivia were handled extremely well by Aubrey Bench and Heather Murdock, respectively. Both were fun to watch and had a comfortable presence on stage. The few scenes between the two of them were some of my favorites. Finally, there were the two clowns, Feste and Sir Toby, played by Davey Morrison Dillard and Levi Brown. These two were great to watch and had to deal with Shakespeare’s difficult jokes and witticisms. These are the jokes that were probably really funny back in Shakespeare’s day when everyone understood the references, but today they need a little more explaining. Quality acting choices by the two performers are what made these jokes work. The two actors focused on speaking directly to the audience to really outline what the jokes were about. Though we may not have laughed as hard as Shakespeare’s groundlings, it was a great success that we even laughed at all. Both actors should be commended on their work.
It’s also hard to separate the actors into categories here. Generally we like to say that these people are leads, these ones are supporting, and these are ensemble (or something along those lines) but with this show, the actors all worked together as a cohesive group, and when an actor wasn’t on stage, they were generally off to the side helping with sound effects or simply just sitting near the audience watching the show. It was great to see the actors being so involved in all the aspects of the show and just enjoying themselves.
I really enjoyed this show quite a bit. It was extremely fun and quite hilarious. I enjoyed the cutting of the script that was able to keep a number of the subplots and yet still kept things moving and concise. I loved the interpretations that the actors brought to their lines and their characters. However, there were a few things that didn’t really add to the show. While I did enjoy the use of modern references here and there to add a little humor, I felt that the addition of contemporary songs distracted from the show. In many instances, these songs were cleverly chosen based on the how the lyrics related to what was happening on stage at that point. Shakespeare himself was a fan of adding contemporary music in his shows (original practice again). However, for me, the little verses here and there of Beatles songs or James Brown hits just pulled me out of the performance without adding much to the overall humor. I did enjoy the use of instrumental music and sound effects to help the audience to follow the themes of the story, but the rest could have been removed and the show would have still been just as good.
One other piece of the performance that didn’t work too well was the inclusion of the audience. The company began the evening by saying that they wanted the audience to participate in the performance (i.e., boo for the bad guys, cheer for the good guys, answer questions that are asked, etc). I believe that this was a valiant effort to return to the way that it was. Yet we as a modern audience are not used to being so outgoing and open during a performance. Our efforts were lackluster and that presented the actors with a choice: let it go and focus on other aspects of the performance, or push the issue and really get the spectators involved so that the audience’s performance is more like what they envisioned. It seemed to me that there wasn’t a clear consensus as to what to do. Some actors kept trying to get audience members involved, but some seemed surprised when the audience would say something. It’s an interesting idea and worth the effort to try, but it may take a little more effort than what it’s currently getting in order to really make it work. And that might be a little nit-picky.
Overall, I had a wonderful night. It was beautiful outside. The actors were loud, clear, and funny. The show was well-done. But best of all, this is a free show (although there is a $3 suggested donation). This is an experience that is fairly unique for theater in Utah. There are a couple of areas that it might be improved, but they are relatively minor compared to the quality entertainment that comes from this dedicated group of actors. You would be missing out if you didn’t catch this show (and don’t forget they have two other shows this summer as well).