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CSC’s “Twelfth Night” Shows How the West Was Won

Review by Doug Iden of Twelfth Night: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

I attended a Shakespeare play last night and a Wild West Show broke out. Set against a background of an Old West barroom (designed by Vince Salpietro), the Cincinnati Shakespeare Theater opened its production of Twelfth Night in “rootin’-tootin’” fashion.

The gender-bending comedy follows twins Viola (Caitlin McWethy) and Sebastian (Patrick Earl Phillips) when their boat capsizes, they are separated (each thinking the other is dead) and, then, struggle to survive in a foreign land. For protection, Viola pretends to be a man named Cesario and enters the service of Duke Orsino (William Oliver Watkins) with whom she promptly falls in love.  Orsino is attracted to Cesario as well but, since he thinks she is a man, complications ensue.  However, Orsino thinks he is in love with Countess Olivia (Abby Lee) and sends Cesario as an intermediary.  Olivia, then, promptly falls in love with Cesario/Viola.  Complications, misunderstandings, confused identities and general chaos continue to run rampant through the remainder of the show

In the comic subplot, Olivia’s uncle (one of the Bard’s greatest characters, Sir Toby Belch played deliciously by Billy Chase) conspires with Olivia’s maid Maria (Jennifer Joplin) to belittle Olivia’s pompous steward Malvolio (Barry Mulholland). They are abetted by Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Geoffrey Warren Barnes II), Fabian (Jeremy Dubin) and Feste (Paul Riopelle) with more than a passing nod to The Three Stooges.  Their collective buffoonery is a highlight of the evening.

Somehow, with a wave of Will’s magic wand, it all sorts itself out in the end and everyone ends up with whom they are supposed to.

The acting, as usual, was superb. McWethy did an excellent job of playing the confusing male/female role with frequent looks of consternation.  She parroted the movements that, as woman, she thought a man would employ.  At one point, she sprawled all over the stage (as a man) rather than assuming a modest female posture.  One scene in particular stands out when the band has taken the stage with a production number.  Viola and Orsino are sitting together ostensibly enjoying the music but secretly stealing glances at each other.  Orsino is embarrassed by his apparent attraction to a man.  All of this is done subtly with no dialogue.  The comic quartet of Belch, Aguecheek, Fabian and Feste cavort uproariously and steal every scene they are in.

Music plays a significant part in the story as a group of troubadours dressed like John Wayne constantly appear, acting, at times, like a Western Greek Chorus. Sometimes, they walk in the saloon door and, at other times, they just pop up from behind the bar and on the roof unexpectedly (which always garnered laughs from the audience).   The musicians, playing in a distinctly western, horse-opera style, include Barnes, Cary Davenport, Josh Katawick, Sylvester Little, Jr., and Riopelle.  There are also numerous musical gags with snippets from popular songs from musical such as “The Sound of Music” and “Maria” along with “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (a play on the title, I’m sure) and some standard folk songs such as “Oh, Susanna”.

The costumes, designed by Clara Jean Kelly, blend well with the theme including normal working clothes (musicians), outlandish chaps (the jester Feste), Dude outfit (Malvolio), flouncy dress (Olivia), Mississippi gambler (Orsino) and identical nautical outfits for the twins Viola and Sebastian (which helps the audience identify them). The barroom set is typical of its day but rather ornate with a touch of a nautical theme. They use a trapdoor in the floor to represent Malvolio’s imprisonment and the storm scene when the ship capsizes is very cleverly done.

Overall, the show is directed by Austin Tichenor as a broad, sweeping burlesque with significant elements of farce and slapstick. There is a whole routine where the comic conspirators use pratfalls similar to a Keystone Kops routine and several sword dueling scenes which look like a parody of an Errol Flynn movie.  The audience appeared to love the presentation.  How many times do you hear laughing out loud at a Shakespeare play?

Purists may rail at this interpretation which is not traditional. This is an example of “cultural appropriation” (according to a Shakespearean expert that I know) which incorporates modern allusions into a 400-year-old play.  There were a number of contemporary allusions including a “moon walk” (ala Michael Jackson), high-5’s and a lot of funky dance movements by Chase and Barnes.  They were even satirizing old western movies.  The point is to try to make Shakespeare more accessible and accommodating to modern audiences which I, personally, think is fine.  After seeing many Shakespeare plays, I am still a little intimidated by the Elizabethan language and it often takes me 5-10 minutes to get into the rhythm of the play.  In this production, I barely noticed the “thees and thous” and was instantly transported into the magic of the show.

So, if you are looking for a thoroughly entertaining evening, do not wait for the “Twelfth Night” of the production but gather your 10-gallon hat, saddle up your trusty Cayuse and saunter down immediately to the Cincinnati Shakespeare Theater production running through December 8.