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Twelfth Period, or Not Another Twelfth Night
Adapted from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
Directed by Gabe Taylor
ERA
April 22, 2017

The Cast of Twelfth Period
Photo: ERA

ERA is known for some excellent experimental theatre, including its mash-ups of Shakespeare with other elements of culture. Their latest show blends the Bard’s classic comedy Twelfth Night with high school films from the 1990’s. Music from that time period abounds in this intriguing tone-shifted production that actually brings elements of tragedy into the comedy. There’s a strong cast and some great ideas, and a truly excellent use of the show’s performance space, and it’s an entertaining and challenging story, although not everything they try works as well as it could.

Twelfth Period takes the basic plot and characters of Twelfth Night and takes them to high school in the 1990s, but with a few notable twists beyond the setting change. Here, some of the major comic elements from the original have been taken out, and some characters are more emphasized, such as the Malvolio figure, here called Mallory “Mal” Olio (Katy Keating), who is a socially awkward girl with a crush on popular girl Olivia Davenport (Erin Renee Roberts), who is grieving the recent loss of both her father and her brother. Olivia is being courted by Dude Orsino (Jonah Walker), who enlists the help of new kid Sebastian Horowitz (Amanda Wales), who in turn has a crush on the Dude. The mistaken identity/identical twins plot is shaken up a little here, and the prank played on Mal by party-boy jock Toby Belch (Andrew Kuhlman), his girlfriend Maria Smith (Francesca Ferrari), and new quarterback Andrew “Andy” Aguecheek (Tyson Cole) is given a much more sinister twist than in the source material. Situations and quotes from various 90s films are incorporated into the script along with the Shakespeare, as the story takes a much darker turn than is first implied as it leads to a prom night that none of the students will ever forget. The story also features a student videographer, Valentine (Erik Kuhn) who doesn’t figure much into the story until he turns up later as a different character, and  Mrs. Feste (Anna Skidis Vargas), the well-meaning but somewhat clueless principal and English teacher.

The structure of this play is intriguing in that it varies depending on the schedule audience members are handed at the beginning of the show. I was in the “junior class” and followed the schedule given, which took our group to several different floors and rooms in the building. The use of space is a major strength of this production, as it really helped to create and maintain the atmosphere of being in high school. The characters also interacted with the audience at various moments in the play, most notably in the “cutting class” segment, where Toby hands out beers and cans of water to his fellow class-cutting “students” and jokes around as he goofs off on the building’s balcony, waiting for his friends Maria and Andy so he can plan the prank on Mal.  Kuhlman is believable as the boisterous, hard-partying prankster Toby, and Ferrari as Maria is a suitable accomplice. Cole is convincing as the awkward, conflicted Andy as well. Keating, as Mal, is a standout in her complex, sympathetic portrayal of a character whose story verges quite a lot from the original story. Wales is fine as well as Sebastian–who as in the orginal is really Viola, but there’s more to the story this time. Walker and Roberts also do well with what they are given, but they aren’t given much. The same goes for Kuhn, who plays two characters but isn’t seen a lot.  Skidis Vargas gets to be the comic relief much of the time as the teacher and sometimes gym coach, and she also gets a good dramatic moment in the prom scene. It’s a good cast, and they have a great deal of energy and enthusiasm.

The look of the production is generally consistent, and as mentioned the use of space is excellent. There are some funny moments, some awkward-funny moments (like Sex-Ed class especially), some intense moments (Mal in the dark room especially), and a lot of moments that are just very “high school” whether it’s the 90’s or not. Still, while this is an excellent effort and a clever idea, the somewhat sudden shift to a darker tone doesn’t work quite as well as it could, and ends up seeming somewhat contrived. The characters sometimes get lost in the concept, as well, in a sense that it seems a lot of time like the theme is dictating the plot in ways that aren’t entirely consistent.

For the most part, Twelfth Period is a successful experiment, although it could use a little bit of refining.  The performances of the cast, especially Keating, Kuhlman, and Skidis Vargas, are strong, and it’s always fascinating to see what ERA can do with Shakespeare. This isn’t quite as stunning as previous efforts like last year’s remarkable Trash Macbeth, but for the most part, it’s a memorable trip to a 1990’s high school, with messages about individuality, peer pressure, the dangers of bullying, and more. In keeping with its academic setting, this play gets a B from me.

ERA is presenting Twelfth Period, or Not Another Twelfth Night, at the Centene Center for the Arts until May 2, 2017.

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Twelfth Night

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
October 3, 201512039250_10206184703591047_5710833879887949041_n

Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s best known comedies. It’s also the Shakespearean comedy that I’ve seen performed most often. It’s easy to see why, since the play has a lot going for it–comedy, music, romance, and more. As with any Shakespeare play, as well, there’s room for creativity, and St. Louis Shakespeare has presented a production that makes the most of Shakespeare’s script while bringing it to life in an inventive, energetic way.

This play tells the familiar story of twins Viola (Vanessa Waggoner) and Sebastian (Erik Kuhn), who are separated in a shipwreck, each believing the other has drowned. The story focuses mostly on Viola who, disguised as a young man named Cesario, goes to work in the court of the Count Orsino (Adam Flores), who employs “Cesario” to woo Olivia (Elizabeth Knocke), a countess who ends up falling for the messenger rather than the employer. Things get more complicated by the addition of several subplots involving Olivia’s relative Sir Toby Belch (Robert Ashton) and his friend, another would-be suitor of Olivia’s, the bumbling Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jaime Zayas). And then there’s the pompous Malvolio (Chistopher LaBanca), Olivia’s steward, who Sir Toby and his friends including Maria (Patience Davis), Fabian (Maxwell Knocke),  and court fool Feste (Britteny Henry) conspire to humiliate.  And then Sebastian finally shows up and things get even more complicated. It’s all very convoluted and hilarious in that delightful Shakespearean way.

With all the hijinks and goings-on, Twelfth Night presents a challenge to theatre companies to present all that material with just the right comic timing and romantic elements. This production succeeds admirably in staging, particularly in the physical comedy moments, and in the ideal casting. This is probably the best production I’ve ever seen with respect to casting a Viola and Sebastian who could believably be mistaken for one another, for one thing, and the whole cast is lively and full of energy.  Waggoner makes an excellent, earnest and occasionally bewildered Viola, whose disguise doesn’t protect her as much as she would have imagined. She works well with Flores, who gives a commendable, well-rounded performance that’s remarkable considering he stepped into the role at the last minute. Although he does carry the script in hand, it’s hardly noticeable and just appears that he’s always got documents to read or sign. Elizabeth Knocke is great as the slightly haughty Olivia, as well.  There are also standout performances from Ashton, Zayas, Davis, and Maxwelll Knocke in the the hilarious comic subplot, centered around LaBanca’s masterfully hilarious turn as the duped Malvolio.  The best scene in the play involves the incident in which Malvolio “finds” a forged letter supposedly from Olivia. Henry is also strong in acting and singing as the “fool” Feste, who functions as more of a singer than a jester.

Technically, this is a memorably production as well, with a fun stylistic theme of blending elements of various time periods together to create a timeless and stylish look.  The set, by Ryan Ethridge, is colorful and versatile, with its platforms, pillars, and a water feature that’s put to great use. Also particularly remarkable are Wes Jenkins’s costumes, which range in style from the colorful Scottish-inspired garb of Viola and Sebastian, to the flashy and garish suits of Sir Andrew’s, to Malvolio’s outlandish getup in one prominent scene. It’s a fast-moving production very well paced and staged by director Donna Northcott.

Unfortunately, this play is no longer running so it’s too late to catch it. It was well-worth seeing, however. Featuring some of the most impressive physical comedy that I’ve seen in any production of Twelfth Night, as well as a strong cast full of wit, charm, and energy, this was an excellent representation of one of Shakespeare’s most well-known works.

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I recently had the honor of interviewing Rick Dildine, the Executive Director of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis and one of the most influential figures in the current St. Louis theatre scene.  SFSTL will be concluding its current production of Twelfth Night this weekend. We talked about how his views on Shakespeare, theatre in general, St. Louis as a cultural center, and more.  Here are the highlights:

Michelle: How did you get into theatre and, more specifically, how did you discover Shakespeare?

Rick Dildine: That’s kind of a timely question because I just was talking about this with someone the other day—actually, a teacher. It started with my 8th Grade English teacher, who suggested that over the holiday break, that I read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and then she said “I’ll give you bonus points if you put together the play with all the kids in the class. And I did it, and she said “you know, maybe you should consider doing this as a career someday”. And I’d never thought about that, but from that moment on I started doing theatre. So, it started with a teacher for me.

M: So you started doing theatre with Shakespeare?

RD: I did, and then I slowly went into mostly musical theatre and went to college, got an Acting degree and then got my Master’s in Acting from Brown. And then I kept getting pulled into doing large-scale theatre outdoors. I ran a large outdoor theatre in Kentucky for five years, and then I also did a lot of new plays in Chicago and Providence, but my real interest is really in big outdoor events. So that’s how I got pulled into coming to Shakespeare Festival St. Louis.

M: What are some things about Shakespeare that you like?

RD: It’s not ordinary. I mean, he didn’t write just like, a day at the mall.  [He wrote about] extraordinary moments that call for extraordinary language. And that’s what I love about it.  His language and stories are universal, and they’re timely. At almost any moment in our lives, we can find some type of moment or character or piece of the story that we can relate to as human beings.

M: What do you think about modernized Shakespeare vs. more traditional stagings? Do you think it helps make Shakespeare more accessible to the general public, to do modern dress?

RD: I have a pretty firm stance on this. I believe that you should always start with story, and then from story a director can layer in concepts or, perhaps framing it in a different time period, as long as it’s supporting the story—Shakespeare’s story. That’s what I like. As far as modernizing it or changing the story, we have an initiative called Shake38 where we encourage people to take Shakespeare’s text and perform it and live in it anyway they see fit. So, I’m all for good storytelling. As a director, I land in a place of wanting to take Shakespeare’s text and make as lively and as crackling as possible. I’m always a proponent of having Shakespeare evolve—having his stories mean something different for a new generation, because we’re in a generation now where young people get their information and create in an instant. They can create photography, video, music in an instant, text in an instant. So I’m all for letting him evolve.

M: What’s the most unusual full-length concept for a Shakespeare production you’ve seen?

RD: I did see a production of the Scottish Play [Macbeth] done entirely in Japanese, as a Japanese action film, with subtitles and the actors performing in Japanese, but someone was speaking English over it.

M: Where was that?

It was at a regional theatre in Oregon. It was pretty stunning. I mean, it totally made the play… you really listened to the language and you really listened to the story. So that’s definitely a memorable one. I’m trying to think of any other ones that have really blown my mind.  I saw a six person Comedy of Errors that I thought was going to impossible to perform, but was the best production of The Comedy of Errors I have ever seen. That was at the Court Theatre in Chicago.

M: What made you decide to take the job at Shakespeare Festival St. Louis?

RD: The experience. I initially did not think I wanted the job, and so I snuck down here one night from Chicago. I bought a ticket on my own and got on a train and came down and I saw 4,000 people watching The Merry Wives of Windsor for free, and from that moment I was sold. The high quality of the work and the accessibility was what sold me on it.

M: About Twelfth Night specifically—it’s the first SFSTL production you’re directing.  Did you decide to direct because of the play that was chosen, or did you choose the play because you wanted to direct?  

RD: As the leader of the institution, I’m also the one picking the shows and planning them out. I had initially not planned on directing, but when the slot came open and looking at the availability of directors that we use and other directors that I want to use, it just became apparent at one moment, I think about this time a year ago, that this was the best moment for me to direct. It’s my favorite Shakespeare play.  I love how music can help tell stories, and Twelfth Night uses music more than any other Shakespeare play. So with all these things lining up, it seemed like the best moment, and my staff and board were incredibly encouraging, so I jumped into it and did it. I won’t be directing every year, though (laughs).

M: It does seem like it takes a whole year to put together a production, and I was wondering about the process. How do you pick the plays, and what is the timeline like for getting a show ready to do?

RD: Well, I’m fairly certain of the plays that I’m going to be doing for the next three years, so that’s about as far out as I’ll schedule. And what it takes is, it’s like you’re putting together a really big dinner party, and you’ve got to make sure that all the people that you want at that party are available when you need them. So it takes a long time to get the director—the director is always the first thing that I start with, and then from there working on the design team that he or she wants to work with, and then actors. Shakespeare is a pretty demanding type of performance, and demands an experienced director who can handle text. Our audiences love really high quality text performances.  So, getting all those things lined up takes a few years. We’re working about two to three years out at a time.

As far as selecting them, Shakespeare wrote 38 plays, so not all of them are A+ plays. There are A plays, there are B-level plays and there are some C-level plays. So what I try to do is make sure that we’re doing plays that are going to attract people, interest people, but also give them the full scope of Shakespeare’s writing, from comedy to tragedy to history to romance—from his incredibly well-written plays like Twefth Night to some of his B-level plays. I’m trying to give a full breadth and scope of his work.

M: Are you still alternating? You were doing a tragedy or history one year, and then a comedy the next year…?

RD: I describe it as light and dark. Shakespeare wrote many more darker plays than he did lighter plays, so we do tend to do that—light, dark [alternating]. Doing comedy, tragedy—I’m eventually going to run out of comedies because he wrote a lot more tragedy and history. So yeah—light, dark is what I try to do.

M: What’s your favorite Shakespeare play that SFSTL hasn’t already done?

RD: Well, three immediately jump to mind. I really love Cymbeline.

M: I like Cymbeline. It’s a really interesting one.

RD: Yeah, I love the romance in Cymbeline. Henry V because I love the courage and the bravery of the king in that one. And then one that I don’t think we’ll be doing on the main stage anytime soon, but I do love Titus Andronicus, because I love the dynamic of family in that play, and how these people play out through their emotions and their actions and how they destroy each other. I think it’s fascinating. Now I do not plan on doing Titus Andronicus on the main stage anytime soon. I think on average there’s an act of violence something like every fifty lines in Titus Andronicus.

M: Yeah, I guess you have to pick plays based to a certain degree on how accessible they are for the general audience. (RD nods, smiles). How many people do you get every year?  Do you have a projected attendance?

RD: You know, because it’s outdoors and it’s free we don’t do any type of ticket sales or advance tickets, [but] we do count the site. We have a really great counting system. We have been getting over 60,000 people a year. We have been attracting very large audiences. Our average audience size is 3,000 people. Last year at Othello, 66,000 people was our total. So we tend to have about 60,000 + come see the show.

M: What are some of the most interesting comments you’ve heard from audience members at Twelfth Night?

RD: Well, I don’t know if it’s so much interesting as encouraging. [People] love the use of live music to tell the story. They love our appreciation for clarity of language, clarity of story. Like I said, I’m not a director who likes to layer in a lot of directing choices. I like to keep my Shakespeare clear, concise, so that that people can follow the story, not watch my interesting choices (laughs). But the thing that I’m most happy with is that people walk away saying “I understood what was going on. The story is clear. It’s concise”. That’s a huge compliment.

M: What are your impressions of the St. Louis theatre scene in general? Obviously it’s not as big as New York or London or Chicago, but what do you think of what we have in terms of theatre in St. Louis?

RD: The theatrical energy of this town is enviable for a lot of other cities. I mean, there is a breadth of work that’s going on in the dozens of theatres.  I’m so impressed that on any given night you can go see a play, a musical, a Shakespeare play.  You can go see just about anything on any given night, in almost any pocket of the city, too. I was incredibly impressed when I arrived here from Chicago, to see how much theatre was going on.

M: What are some of your favorite things about St. Louis in general?

RD: Well, I love the city in that there are so many accessible things to do. You know, we walk the Botanical Garden every single week. There are a lot of jewels here: Forest Park, the Botanical Garden, the Zoo, the Art Museum. I’ve lived in a lot of cities, and the accessibility of art and culture is top-notch in this city. That’s what I appreciate the most.

M: Now in terms of the future—there are a lot of things that SFSTL does, like Shake38, the main stage play, the school program. Are there any other projects in the pipeline?

RD: Well, next up for us is in September, we’ll be doing Shakespeare in the Streets. We spend a year in a neighborhood creating an original play about that neighborhood, inspired by a Shakespeare play. So September 19th through the 23rd will be Shakespeare in the Streets: Grove Edition. So we’ll be in the Grove, over around the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood, and shutting down a city street and doing an original play.  That’s up next.  And looking beyond 2013, we have some ambitious ideas of how we can make Shakespeare accessible to as many people as possible, but to also enrich the cultural and artistic life of our city so that it’s competitive with a Chicago, a San Francisco, a New York, and Austin, Texas, that we can compete on that level with arts and culture.

M:  This is something I’ve heard a lot, and I was wondering how you would answer it. If someone says “Oh, Shakespeare-that’s boring,” what would you say to that?

RD:  Well, I would say Shakespeare didn’t write about the boring moments in our lives. He wrote about moments that we all can relate to. He wrote about first love. He wrote about obsession.  He wrote about revenge.  He wrote about jealousy. All of these things are not boring moments in our lives.  Every single one of us has had an experience in one of those areas. So when I [hear] “Shakespeare is boring”—when you sit in a room and watch and hear good Shakespeare, it will change your life.  It’s like seeing great opera. If you see a great performance of opera, it changes your life.

M: What are some things that you would like people to most remember about SFTSTL?

RD:  I think most importantly what I would like for them to remember is that Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is something that contributes in an incredible way to the quality of life in our city. It is part of the annual cultural calendar, and it contributes to the cultural fabric of who we are as a city.

For more information about Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, please check out their official website, linked in the sidebar of this blog. Thanks so much to Rick Dildine for this interview. 

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Twelfth Night

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rick Dildine

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

May 25th and May 30th, 2013

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I look forward to Shakespeare Festival St. Louis every year. You get to see a top quality Shakespeare play outside in beautiful Forest Park with many fun pre-show activities, and it’s free! What’s not to love about that? This year, the show is one of Shakespeare’s more popular comedies, Twelfth Night, and as usual, SFSTL does not disappoint, putting on a very funny, engaging and musical production that more than lives up to SFSTL’s already excellent reputation.

The gender-bending story follows Viola (Kimiye Corwin) who is shipwrecked and separated from her twin brother Sebastian (Vichet Chum), and disguises herself as a boy to serve as a page to Duke Orsino (Joshua Thomas), who is trying to woo the melancholy Countess Olivia (Leslie Ann Handelman) who is grieving for her recently deceased father and brother. Meanwhile, Olivia’s kinsman Sir Toby Belch (Eric Hoffmann) and her handmaiden Maria (Candice Jeanine) scheme with another suitor of Olivia’s, the bumbling and ineffectual Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Haas Regen) to humiliate Olivia’s pompous steward Malvolio (Anderson Matthews).  Little does Viola know, though, that Sebastian has survived the shipwreck with the aid of sailor Antonio (Michael James Read), and his presence soon adds further complication to the already complex plot involving love-at-first-sight, mistaken identity and romantic confusion.

Music is a key element to this production, with live musicians onstage performing Shakespeare’s lyrics set to the folk-style tunes written by Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra, sung by Andy Paterson as the amiable fool Feste with a clear, soaring tenor voice. In fact, music pervades and underscores the whole show, setting the mood whether it’s mournful, melancholy, whimsical or romantic.

The striking set by Scott C. Neale is also a vital element in setting the mood of the production, with its colorful, off-kilter Mediterranean-style villa with an outsized full moon beside it.  The costumes, designed by Dottie Marshall Englis, suggest a mid-Victorian setting and are as colorful as the set.  The duped Malvolio’s getup in the second act is a real highlight that adds to the comedy of the production.  I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say Shakespeare’s words “yellow stockings and cross-gartered” are quite hilariously interpreted here.

As for the performances, it’s a top-notch cast all around.  Corwin makes a strong, equally earnest and bewildered Viola, whose struggles between her attraction to Orsino and trying to do her duty are made poignantly plain. She also has just the right amount of affected swagger that makes her masquerade both obvious and believable.  Her scenes with both Thomas as Orsino and Handelman as Olivia are expertly acted, and her chemistry with Thomas in particular is notable.  Thomas does a great job of portraying Orsino as both determined and somewhat conflicted as his determination to woo the reluctant Olivia conflicts with his growing attachment to his courtier “Cesario”, who he doesn’t realize is really Viola in disguise.  Handelman portrays Olivia with a mixture of aggressive melancholy and lovestruck energy, and Chum as Sebastian also does great work in his few scenes, displaying remarkable chemistry with both Handelman as his sudden love-interest and Corwin as his seemingly long-lost sister.

I loved the cohesive unit that was formed by the affably drunk Sir Toby, the awkward Sir Andrew and the scheming Maria, and all three actors work so well together and make their scenes a real joy to watch.  Sir Toby and crew baiting Malvolio is a masterfully staged moment of side-splitting physical comedy that was reminiscent of classic slapstick comedy and had me and most of the audience laughing our heads off.  The real standout in this plotline, though, is Matthews as Malvolio, who is brilliant in both his stiff pomposity and his bumbling foolishness.  The comic sword-fighting involving Viola, Sebastian, Sir Andrew and Sir Toby was also well-done and extremely funny.

As evidenced by the description in this review, this is a show with a whole lot of plot, and all the various elements fit together seamlessly as portrayed by this remarkable cast.  It was a great show, and almost came across as a musical with the many songs and live musicians.  The outside setting of the production also worked to set a dreamy mood, and the overall effect was one of sheer delight.

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