PROVO — I’ve been away from Utah Valley for a few years and so sitting in the Echo Theatre in Provo for the first time in my life was thrilling. I love to see a new theatre company realize their dream. Twelfth Night opens a diverse season and seems to fill a niche among the other theatre companies in the valley. It feels like they are picking up where Provo Theatre Company left off, minus the experienced cast members and high technical standards that always flourished at PTC. I believe that will come eventually. I applaud the staff at the Echo for turning a giant square room into a viable theatre and providing something “different” in the valley. Having directed community theatre for over 20 years, I know exactly where they are and I wish them every success. Nevertheless, as a reviewer, I am bound to say what I thought, and I hope it helps the Echo clarify their vision as they build their audience.
Shakespeare‘s Twelfth Night is about a pair of twins, Viola and Sebastian, who are shipwrecked off the mystical coast of Illyria. Both believe the other has drowned. Viola disguises herself as a boy and enters the servitude of the Count Orsino, who is in love with the Countess Olivia. But Olivia has sworn off men because she is mourning the loss of her father and brother. Sounds like a tragedy so far, but what ensues is one of Shakespeare’s funniest plays, full of quirky characters playing practical jokes, mistaken identities, and—of course—love.
Twelfth Night is a big audience pleaser if a director can successfully lift the raucous comedy past the opening shipwreck and several characters drearily mourning the loss of their loved ones. As director, Eve Speer has a difficult time launching the comedy because she has so effectively emphasized the shipwreck by using a lengthy, monotonous piece of music at the beginning of the play. As the singers (not in their characters while they sing) rock back and forth to create the floating ship effect, they evolve into a frozen tableau that eventually comes back to life one character at a time. It takes about ten minutes to get into the play itself, and it seems longer than that. These opening devices seem more appropriate for Hamlet than a lighthearted comedy. Eventually, though, the script does its magic and pandemonium ensues.
As a community theatre, the Echo is bound by small budgets and small casting pools. This cast revealed their inexperience too many times throughout the performance. Valentine, for example, stopped the show by trying relentlessly to stand a guitar up against a wall and eventually it fell over projecting its sour twang across the audience to which she responded “stay there!” Cast members freely broke character dealing with the glitches that so often happen on opening night and improv-ing lines and reactions throughout the show.
But the biggest challenge for me was having the cast use the correct pronouns because many of the actors’ genders did not match the characters’ traditional gender. I understand that it is difficult to get men to audition for plays and sometimes it necessitates a change in the gender of the character. However, it is not difficult to change the pronouns throughout the text to match consistently. Many times characters were referred to as “he” in one scene and “she” in the next. Antonio, the ship’s captain, called herself both a woman and a man. The chaos of a farce is already a hurdle for any cast, but adding the gender bending only increased the confusion.
What lies in the cast’s favor is their passion. It is apparent that they had a blast with the play. The exuberance of opening night combined with a familial tone among the actors themselves created a nice cohesive ensemble that made me want to play too. Stand-out performances include Archelaus Crisanto as the guitar-playing Duke, Sarah Butler as the gender bending Viola, and Trevor Williams, whose subtle style as Fabian made me laugh out loud every time he was on stage. Crisanto had great command of the character and text, and I appreciated his rich tone, diction and volume; his skills belie someone with a far bigger Shakespeare resume. Although Butler lacked the sparkle of a comic heroine in the beginning, she effectively portrayed the boyish Cesario. Parker Olsen was also perfectly cast as the faltering dupe, Andrew Aguecheek.
Where the cast gets into trouble is with the diction necessary for the text. There were moments when a drunk Sir Toby (played by Matthew Carter) stepped on other characters’ lines or delivered the text in a drunken muddle. Sir Toby is supposed to be a lovable baffoon, but the monotone lecherousness prevented him from being lovable. The character of Malvolio (played by Leah Hodson) had a British dialect in the opening scene and after that seemed to come from the Deep South. I was also confused as to why she needed a dialect at all when no one else used one.
Compounding my confusion was the setting, which is vital to any Shakespeare production. I truly appreciated the ingenuity that the artistic staff used in creating a usable non-traditional performing space. Entrances and exits to the stage are practical, but sometimes don’t make sense in a beach setting. I understand the stairs down from the “dock” but the center exit/entrance looks like the characters disappear into the sand. Because a specific set designer is not listed, I assume that it was a combined effort, and it showed in the disunified result. The famous woodblock print “The Great Wave of Hanagawa” provided a giant backdrop to the play, painted directly on the back wall and flanked by a maroon, snow-capped Mount Fuji. These Japanese overtones (while beautiful) confounded me, especially because the costumes (nor anything else) showed any Asian influence. Though it is common to set Shakespeare plays in non-traditional settings, the technical aspects of any show should look cohesive. In this production, they do not. However, I can see a huge sense of artistic passion that has gone into the gorgeous set and its corresponding fabric wave motif. I liked it so much; I just wish it enlightened the plot in some way.
Moreover, the heavy winter coats and boots that all of the characters were wearing (even Olivia!) contradict the sandy, Japanese beach setting. When Olivia said, “my state is well, I am a gentleman,” the puffy vest and skinny pants said otherwise. Perhaps the biggest judgment call here was the character of Feste, the most famous clown in the Shakespeare canon. It was cast as two girls, which is a choice I loved, but they were wearing white woolen pea coats with lumberjack-esque plaid shirts and boots. I know there was a conscious choice to costume them in this way because they were so alike, but I wish it endowed their characters with a playful, clown-like context. Maybe the heavy winter wear was a nod to the traditional thinking that Twelfth Night is Shakespeare’s Christmas play.
Finally, it’s important to mention the hefty dose of music added to the play. This music director has really good taste in music, and I loved the individual pieces so much. Also endearing is that nearly all of the cast played an instrument and accompanied themselves, which is a modern trend that I enjoy. Moreover, the music and costumes elements actually complemented each other; yet the music did not necessarily match the script. The only piece that worked was “I’m Walkin’ on Sunshine,” which was fabulous and made sense within the world of the play. The opening number was about a forlorn woman named Annabelle Lee, yet there was no Annabelle Lee in the script. The second and third pieces of music were sung nicely by the cast, but they were more sentimental than plot enhancing. Finally, the finale, “Valkyrie at the Roller Disco” utterly baffled me. It’s a song with nicely arranged harmonies, but instead of wrapping up the plot and support the denouement, it left me distracted. I had the distinct feeling that the cast just loved the song. But it had nothing to do with the script. Perhaps it was being sung to Malvolio, but I’m not sure because it was the performers were not in character when they sang.
In the end, this Shakespeare comedy jumped genres into the “problem plays.” The attempt was a passionate one, and I can see grand potential in this young group of actors, singers, and producers. Twelfth Night could have used a heavier directing hand to bring the technical elements together cohesively, a good scrub to clean up rogue improv-ing and diction, and a soundtrack that would propel the show to comic heights.