“Westward Ho!” The Cincinnati Shakespeare Company takes Viola’s quote from Twelfth Night at its word when it envisions one of Shakespeare’s most well-known and beloved comedies in 1850’s San Francisco. CSC has certainly had its share of clever period staging of Shakespeare’s plays, but perhaps never so effectively and hysterically as this one (I’ll admit, though, steam punk Titus Andronicus was hard to beat). And lest you think that the bard’s immortal words hardly fit the twang of the western forty-niner, consider that when Yosemite Sam calls someone a “lily-livered varmint” in the cartoons, his words come directly from Macbeth and Elizabethan idiom.
One of CSC’s greatest strengths is the depth and energy of its ensemble and never is that more evident than in the current production–there is not a weak link in the cast. To give a summary of the plot and do justice to all the performers is no easy task, but here goes: Viola (Caitlyn McWethy) is shipwrecked and separated from her twin brother, Sebastian, whom she believes is drowned. Dressed as a man for protection, she becomes the servant of Duke (Mayor?) Orsino (William Oliver Watkins) and awkwardly falls in love with him. Watkins plays the straight-man, for the most part, while McWethy effectively slips between a bewildered fish-out-of-water and a romantic idealist; a brilliantly staged musical interlude perfectly sets up their affection for one another. Meanwhile, Orsino is infatuated with the apparently man-renouncing Olivia (Abby Lee), and uses Viola as a go-between, whom Olivia falls in love with in her male guise. Viola’s brother (Patrick Earl Phillips) arrives, dressed in the same clothes, meets Olivia himself and is mistaken for his sister and–well, you get the picture. Lee is perfectly cast as Olivia, a difficult role which she fills with both wit and winsomeness.
Meanwhile, Olivia’s household adds the subplot and the broader humor. Her maid, Maria (Jennifer Joplin) and drunken cousin, Toby Belch (Billy Chace) scheme against her officious steward, Malvolio (Barry Mulholland) along with her fool Feste (Paul Riopelle), Belch’s cowardly friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Geoffrey Warren Barnes II), and Fabian (Jeremy Dubin) who in this version plays the bartender. This troupe plays up the comedy with exaggerated, physical humor, which flawlessly merges with the western scenario. The cast is rounded out by the ever-radiant Miranda McGee, who plays a saloon wench and later Sebastian’s friend and wanted outlaw, Antonia.
The comedy in this production is imbued with impeccable timing by director Austin Tichenor, who makes sure the audience misses none of the jokes despite the Shakespearian innuendo. His Twelfth Night is filled with all the fun trappings you would expect from a Western comedy, including the inevitable bar fight staged by CSC regular Justin McCombs (who otherwise gets a rest after his grueling turn in last month’s 1984). Here and there you will find nods to more contemporary sensibilities (I loved Viola’s and Sebastian’s occasional valley-girl “Wha-at? followed seamlessly with the rest of the line). There is country music and dancing (composed by Cary Davenport and choreographed by Darnell Pierre Benjamin) performed by a pop-up band (literally) including guitar, banjo, mandolin, washboard and harmonica (Davenport, Josh Katawick, and Sylvester Little, Jr, abetted by others in the cast). The set, by Vince Salpietro, is an inviting one to the audience, in more ways than one, as the Western saloon (aptly named “Just Shots”) becomes a working bar for theatre patrons before the show and during intermission, while the action on the thrust stage keeps the audience engaged. Finally, the costumes by Clara Jean Kelly were colorful, eye-catching and multilayered down to every hoop skirt and vest.
It is productions like these that I always find so emotionally rewarding, reminding me that Shakespeare’s wit, creativity and inspirational vision truly transcend any period or generation. I overheard one patron as he was leaving say, “I am usually a bit of a purist, but this worked”. Whether you are a Shakespearian purist who hangs on every Elizabethan word, or a newcomer to the bard who has never seen a Shakespeare play and is afraid of understanding all this old-fashioned language, this is a performance you will enjoy and treasure. So come on down to the Otto M. Budig theatre and have yourself a hootin’ and hollerin’ hootenanny of a good time.
Twelfth Night runs through December 8th; tickets can be purchased online at www.cincyshakes.com.