Last year’s Colorado Shakespeare Festival was an anomaly, with only two full Shakespeare plays on the roster, Richard III and Love’s Labors Lost, along with a one-night Edward III, a play whose authorship is contested. There was also a fine production of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, along with the 1936 comedy You Can’t Take it With You, by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. This year, artistic director Timothy Orr seems determined to remind audiences that Shakespeare can be highly accessible and also a hell of a lot of fun, with productions of two of the best-loved comedies, Twelfth Night and As You Like It, along with the crowd-pleasing tragedy Romeo and Juliet. King Charles III, a contemporary play by Mike Bartlett that’s drawn glowing reviews in London and New York as well as a fair amount of debate, rounds out the season.
“We had, for the last couple of years or more, been exploring the less traveled areas of the Shakespeare canon," says Orr, referencing 2016’s Cymbeline and Troilus and Cressida. "We realized we’d earned a season of his most enduring work. These plays are so good, so well put together, so well written and so lyrical — and that lends itself to music.”
Twelfth Night, which opens the festival, validates the season’s choices; the talent of actor-musician Rinde Eckert, who plays Feste and composed original music for the songs, adds an intriguing dimension. Perhaps the only thing that could be given more attention is the lyricism Orr mentions.
There’s a reason Twelth Night is popular. It’s one of the most charming of the plays, with love scenes interspersed with rambunctious comedy. It tells the story of a young woman, Viola, who suffers a shipwreck in which she believes her beloved twin brother, Sebastian, has drowned. Washing up on the strange shores of Illyria, she finds employment in the household of the Duke Orsino by — like several of Shakespeare’s heroines — dressing as a man. The first mission Orsino gives her is to plead his cause with the Countess Olivia, who’s in mourning for her dead brother and wants nothing to do with Orsino or anything as trivial as love. The complication: Viola is already in love with Orsino. And when she reluctantly pursues her mission, Olivia promptly falls for her.
The comic interludes come courtesy of a group of loud, sloppy drunks: Sir Toby Belch, his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and the mischief-making servant Maria. Then there’s Olivia’s steward, Malvolio — the name itself gives off a bad odor, meaning ill will — loathed by the others for his judgmental puritanism. “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?” Sir Toby hisses, encapsulating in a single phrase the perennial battle between sensuality and cold morality.
There are unexpected moments of pleasure and surprise in this well-paced and well-acted evening directed by Orr. Take the tormenting of Malvolio by Belch and company, which starts out broadly comic but eventually — as the browbeating goes on and on and on — becomes uncomfortable to watch. Toward the play’s end, both Jessica Robblee’s Olivia and Robert Sicular’s Belch are clearly and unexpectedly feeling compassion. When Malvolio delivers his exit line, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you,” it often sounds like the huffy snort of
a teenager whose iPhone has been confiscated. But Gareth Saxe, who gives an excellent and nuanced performance in the role, speaks like a man who’s both filled with white-hot rage and utterly broken.
Eckert’s Feste is also an inspired touch. There’s been all kinds of critical analysis of the clown in Shakespeare, his role as both fool and truth-teller, a joker who hides wisdom that others refuse to see behind cryptic mocking utterances. Eckert’s sardonic and also somewhat mysterious Feste actually seems to summon the great storm that shipwrecks Viola and Sebastian. When he sings, the thunder answers him — doubly effective on the night I attended as rain and gathering clouds kept threatening all of us in the outdoor Mary Rippon Theatre. And his music for the songs has a kind of plain, unornamented beauty.
There are a couple of choices I’d dispute. Sebastian’s friend Antonio has become Antonia, an equally macho and effective fighter who happens to be female. I don’t object to the change in sex, but I did find Antonia’s oozing love for Sebastian and constant flirting tiresome, despite Madison Hart’s assured performance. It’s a touch that adds nothing to the story.
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A more important criticism is that the poetry is sometimes scanted. There isn’t a performer on the stage who’s incapable of expressing the full scope of the language, but this doesn’t always get done. Amber Scales is a fine Viola, with a strong, clear voice and presence, but she never quite takes the time to explore the character’s emotional depths. When Robblee first appeared as Olivia, I caught my breath; she was so lovely and dignified, and the clear bell tones of her voice made music with Scales’s slightly deeper sound. The scenes between these two women are some of the loveliest in all of Shakespeare, and I was utterly deflated when the action descended into shtick. Sure, it’s mildly funny to watch Olivia grabbing and pulling at Viola, to see her wonder and confusion at first experiencing love expressed as near-farce, but it’s the kind of farce I’ve seen a thousand times before.
And I can’t help thinking Orsino should be sexy, while Marco Robinson, in a flowered gown and effete wig, portrays him as mannered and ineffectual. If the directorial idea is to suggest the fluidity of sexual boundaries — Orsino must be confused, after all, to find himself attracted to an apparent male — it’s unnecessary, because Shakespeare himself does a brilliant job of it. Dante Rossi’s strong, handsome Sebastian also becomes clownish in the should-be-touching scenes when he first sees Olivia and, later, when he discovers his sister is alive.
On the plus side, there’s the balls-out funny of the comic characters: Emma Messenger’s wicked, sensual, larger-than-life Maria and Sicular’s drunken Belch. Rodney Lizcano’s Sir Andrew is pure genius as he throws everything he has into the role, from his hair to his face to his fingertips to his ever-moving body and floppy socks. In many productions, these comic scenes become tedious. Here they vibrate with life and laughter, dissipate storm clouds, and prove that, yes, Shakespeare is crazy funny.
Twelfth Night, presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 11, Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre, University of Colorado Boulder, coloradoshakes.org.