Twelfth Night, or What You Will is easily one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies given the playwright’s expert use of such timeless comedic devices as mistaken identities, gender reversal, and devious subplots. Ottawa last saw an excellent presentation of this play back in 2016 at the National Arts Centre with designs by Old Trout Puppet Workshop and now one of Ottawa’s premiere Shakespeare companies, The Company of Fools, is remounting this work after more than a decade on their shelf. Directed by Bronwyn Steinberg, the adaptation is a serviceable one that suits its outdoor context very well. Featuring some stand-out performances from a female-centric cast, Twelfth Night presented by the Fools makes for a fun and lighthearted evening of Shakespeare in the park.
At its most basic, the plot of Twelfth Night revolves around the twins Viola and Sebastian who are separated at sea during a particularly nasty storm (a common Shakespearean motif). Believing the other to be dead, the twins end up in ancient Illyria where Viola disguises herself as ‘Cesario’ and becomes employed in the service of the Duke Orsino and unintentionally catches the eye of Lady Olivia. Even though Sebastian shows up a little bit later on in the play (and right in the thick of things), his appearance alone is cause for much confusion between the characters which gives the piece its quintessential humour. On top of all of this, there is an amusing subplot involving some of the secondary characters playing a dastardly (but nonetheless well-deserved) trick on Lady Olivia’s steward, the ever-pompous Malvolio.
The historical background of the show is also to be noted given Steinberg’s focus on the themes of gender identity and the performative nature of gender expression. The title, Twelfth Night, is in reference to the last day of Christmastime (or, literally, the twelfth day after Christmas Day) and was often known as the Eve of the Feast of Epiphany (also interesting given how many epiphanies are had throughout this text) which, to both Catholics and Christians alike in the 16th-17th century, was an occasion for revelry. Somewhat inspired by the Saturnalias of the ancient Romans, the Eve of the Feast of Epiphany was an event where servants would dress up as their masters; men as women; and vice versa. This celebration is the perfect milieu for the play’s gender and identity confusion-driven plot. Interestingly enough, the themes that Shakespeare touched on in 1602 have remained more than pertinent in the cultural climate of 2018 where the shift toward accepting a more gender fluid spectrum (as opposed to the “traditional” male to female binary) is still a battle being fought.
With this in mind, I imagine, did Steinberg decide to cast some of the traditional male roles as females, namely, Malvolio, Sebastien, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek. While Sebastien and Sir Andrew retain their “maleness”, to some degree, Malvolio perhaps sees the biggest change in becoming Malvolia (played by the esteemed Mary Ellis) where the character is acknowledged as a female in this adaptation thus adding a whole different layer to the relationship between she and Olivia. This is a clever choice because on one hand the method of ‘cross-dressing’ (thanks in part to Vanessa Imeson’s clever and colourful costume design) is used to great hilarity and it demonstrates how gender is indeed a performative act; and on the other hand, swapping the genders of one of Shakespeare’s most well-known villains reveals a whole other facet to the plot that is ripe for exploration in a time where LGBTQIA+ artists are looking to reclaim artistic space for themselves.
However, the production itself doesn’t always live up to its textual ambitions. The low energy of the opening and closing musical numbers don’t really purvey the sense of revelry or fun that the rest of the production does (granted, the night I saw the show it was particularly hot). In the original text the on stage interactions between Orsino and Cesario are fairly limited and so there isn’t much time for performers to build the characters’ relationship and this becomes very clear in the Fools’ iteration where the chemistry between actors Garrett Quirk and Catherine Rainville (as Orsino and Cesario/Viola respectfully) feels much more forced. Perhaps most disappointingly is that the relationship between Malvolia and Olivia is hardly touched on at all. Even the Malvolio’s infamous Puritan leanings are only seldom mentioned and Ellis’ characterization comes across as grouchy rather than intensely morally upright. It’s refreshing to see this character through a new lens, whereby her true feelings would certainly lie in conflict with her religious upbringing although this element is a bit glossed over in the actual production.
All that to say, Twelfth Night isn’t without some great performances that really make the 90 minutes worthwhile. The talented Kate Smith, for example, doubles as Lady Olivia and Sir Andrew Aguecheek. While it might take you a few scenes to warm up to her Olivia, her Sir Andrew is ridiculously funny especially donning that enormous red codpiece. Quirk’s Orsino is a bit milquetoast, but as the drunkard Toby Belch he shines. Tamara Freeman makes a return appearance to the Fools’ stage this summer as the clown Feste and puppet Fabian (a friend of Belch and Aguecheek) and shows off her lovely voice whilst leading the musical interludes. But, in my mind, it is chameleon Kate McArthur who is the stand-out performer as Maria and Sebastian (also acting as the Holy Man and the hilarious puppet officers who apprehend Antonio) which I didn’t even realize is played by the same person until I looked through my program after the show. Her rendition of Sebastian is so gut-bustingly funny in its seeming mash-up of Jeff Spicoli and Garth Algar that I was in stitches every time she delivered her lines (there’s even a “Schwing!” included for all you Wayne’s World fans). Additionally, she is a strong presence as Olivia’s maid Maria and she and Quirk play off of each other wonderfully.
In spite of its few shortcomings, A Company of Fools does a good job at keeping such a popular play like Twelfth Night feeling fresh. Alongside the laid back atmosphere of the local park area and the bubbly energy of the families who brought their pre-show picnics, this is a great opportunity to get out of the confines of the four-walled black box theatre and just have some fun. Running until August 18th, be sure to check out www.fools.ca to see where they’re playing next!
Twelfth Night, or What You Will
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Bronwyn Steinberg
Presented by A Company of Fools
Featuring (in alphabetical order): Mary Ellis, Tamara Freeman, Kate McArthur, Garrett Quirk, Catherine Rainville, and Kate Smith