“Are you going to write a review?” my friend asked at the soiree at the CU Alumni Center an hour before opening night. I wasn’t sure, but after Rinde Eckert (reminding one of Rocketman) and the especially strong CSF cast blew the audience away three hours later, how could I not try to at least capture the energy of this amazing production directed by Timothy Orr, Producing Artistic Director of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival.
My friend, Amanda, who as Dramaturg was to lead the enlightening pre-show Prologue up above the Mary Rippon open stage in Hellems, shared how lucky they were to have engaged Eckert as Feste as Olivia’s musical Fool for the Bard’s most musical play.
As detailed in the CSF Program, Twelfth Night, the Twelfth Night of Christmas, was still from earliest Medieval Times in Elizabethan England, the Night when the World Turned Upside Down. Led by the Lord of Misrule, Masters and servants changed position, even priests dressed up in women’s clothes as part of some of the early church festivities, a perfect foil for the Elizabethan practice of young boys playing women’s parts.
Eckert, actor, producer, director, musician, and finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, as Lord of Misrule takes full advantage of his role as he plays five different instruments accompanying the songs which integrally warp and weave themselves into the story. His Feste is a sort of Shaxpere stand in as messenger between two houses in love contention.
The Director and Dramaturg Notes are particularly well written and researched as is the cartoon-like exposition of the inter-relationship between the characters:
The play opens up with Viola and her Sea Captain dramatically cast by the sea onto a beach in Illyria, modern day Croatia which still maintains the charms it held in our playwright’s and his favorite Roman poet’s (Ovid’s) imagination. As the Shakespearean Tempest which wrecked her ship dies down, Viola, ‘born of the ocean and ocean borne’ as Timothy Orr presents her, believes her identical twin brother has drowned. So she assumes his male identity, and goes to work as Cesario as the soon favorite page of a local Count with whom she immediately falls in love.
But the Count is in love with Olivia, a Countess, who like our playwright’s Queen refuses matrimony in mourning for a lost brother and father. That is until Olivia is struck in amazement by Cesario whose real name, Viola, is an anagram of Olivia, and also in mourning for her father and brother.
Of course, Viola’s name is hidden by our playwright until the very end, so at this first performance in 1601 before Elizabeth of a play which never saw the light of print ‘til the 1623 First Folio (twenty years later after all had passed from the scene), who would suspect. Not even the quick-witted Queen might suspect that night until the very end as she entertained and translated for a distant Italian cousin, a substitute suitor for her last, now disgraced favorite, plotting rebellion against his enemies with his friends at Southampton House in London.
Our heroine Viola has a problem, but the troubles treble with getting mixed into the playwrights invented subplot at Olivia’s ‘Court’ where the drunken Toby, Olivia’s uncle, is trying to foist his own candidate, the wealthy Andrew Aguecheek, for Olivia’s hand. This ‘Court rivalry’ dominates most of the incredible Twelfth Night insanity, asylum-like, enveloping the play.
And in the middle of the most rapid changing of character sets of any of his plays is Maria, Olivia’s maid, who concocts with Toby and Aguecheek a scheme to drive Olivia’s steward, Malvolio, into believing his mistress is in love with him. Malvolio, the play’s third anagram, is pronounced mad after dancing cross-gartered in yellow stockings in front of his mistress, and imprisoned in a madhouse, resembling in real life the rejected suitor’s situation as his friend John Harrington described to a friend as he fled London to the safety of the country that Christmas season.
As you might gather from the above synopsis, one of the most daring productions I have ever witnessed is in no small part energized by almost every character’s individual expressive contribution to this madhouse, comic, with shades of darkness. The final gaillard dance, Eliza’s favorite at Court performances, led by Feste in a final musical extravaganza song, is joined by all but Malvolio, having left swearing “revenge on the pack of you”, the cast having found true love, including the reborn Sebastion, Viola’s supposedly lost brother and now Olivia’s hubby.
The second performance of Twelfth Night was on Candlemas Day, the anniversary of the baptism by water of the Shakespeare twins, with Anne, Will, Susanna, and especially Judith still mourning her twin brother Hamnet who had died, only age 11, 5 years before while Will was off touring that summer in Kent, missing the funeral.
“When I was a little tiny boy … the wind and the rain …. a long time ago the world begun”, a fitting close to the playwright’s and his Eliza’s world, under her reign and his life under her, having been born in 1564 just 5 years after his now aging Queen assumed her queendom, now two years before its end.
Finally, if Shakespeare adapted from real life, was he also far in advance of the average Elizabethan in areas such as gender and tolerance? Where did such strong characters like Viola, and this season’s Rosalind (As You Like It) and Juliet (Romeo and Juliet) come from if not from life:
Will’s life was filled with strong feminine models beginning with Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother, executor of her father’s will, Anne Hathaway to whom he wrote his first Courting Sonnet 145, and the two school chums, Hermia and Helena, he refers to in Midsummer Night’s Dream. And some of Viola’s ripostes on gender to the Duke’s ‘typical’ male views under the cover of her guise sound similar to the strong ones expressed by several voices in Castiglione’s Courtier (Greenwood Guide to As You Like It). Maybe in these times, when on daily basis our entire present world sometimes appears to verging towards a one night, Turned Upside Down Twelfth Night, perhaps we should take a closer look.