Twelfth Night
August 23, 2011
The Rogue in Blackbird Theatre, Reviews, Shakespeare, West Park, festival/seasonal productions

With its third comedy in as many months, the Blackbird Theatre’s Shakespeare West festival now bends Twelfth Night to its counterculture will. The show’s carefree decadence nestles intriguingly into the perspective of free love and rollicking social change, but palpable rough edges and pitfalls keep the story from reaching far-out heights. The drawbacks are most likely suggestive of time constraints on the part of director Barton Bund and company, a reminder that the young festival’s learning curve remains steep.

Disparity reigns in the play’s several plots, bridged by common characters but not often intersecting; the cast of twelve appears in small groups of limited permutation. Playing hub to these many spokes is Viola (Diviin Huff), washed ashore alone on the island of Illyria and forced to pass as a man out of self preservation. As “Cesario,” Viola enters the service of the duke Orsino (Sean Sabo) and is sent on his behalf to court the countess Olivia (Marisa Dluge); thanks to the gender reversal, the three form a perfect unrequited-love triangle. Huff’s intelligent and able Viola is a likable protagonist; opposite her, Sabo’s best work is not as a lover, but as a uncomprehending, patronizing confidante, and indulgent Dluge’s amazement at her own infatuation is quite fun. Olivia is also sought after by her humorlessly aspirational servant Malvolio (Bund), who becomes the target of a team of perpetually wasted ne’er-do-wells — Dan Johnson, Danny Friedland, and Qmara Peaches Black join forces in revelry to form a riotous peanut gallery. Elsewhere, Viola’s twin brother is less dead than his sister believes (and vice versa); he’s also markedly less identical than the plot requires.

The revolutionary 1960s provide the play’s backdrop, and Bund is credited with design of the accompanying soundtrack and costumes. The device hits and misses, sometimes providing a clever fight scene armed with pool cues (just like the Hell’s Angels did at Altamont) and liberally changing inferences to incorporate casual drug use, but more often than not operating like a straight interpretation topped by a massive afro wig. It’s tempting to question what benefit the setting provides, yet when it works, the justification doesn’t matter: Malvolio’s jumping to conclusions by way of a faked, planted letter doesn’t require an accidental LSD trip, but Bund’s mind-blown beats of discovery make for the funniest, finest scene of the production.

Just as the ‘60s proves a tenuous fit, so does the appealing West Park venue present its share of difficulties. Chief among the issues is scale: with a mostly blank, natural canvas and dual playing spaces (the band shell and the dance floor in front of it), the performances want for greater vocal and physical exaggeration. With many moments played small, the voices — and, by extension, Shakespeare’s tremendous word play — are too often indecipherable, and the faraway band shell scenes in particular begin to feel painfully static. Additionally, night already falls much faster than it did in June, and although darkness serves as a minor plot device in one scene, the persistence of silhouette over much of the second act feels less like a challenge bested than an impasse ignored.

Going from zero to fully formed theater festival is a massive undertaking even without contending with the great outdoors, and some measure of fatigue in the offing is certainly understandable. Accordingly, this groovy, slapdash Twelfth Night bears an unevenness borne out of haste, but with a festival in its infancy, there are no drawbacks, only learning experiences.

Unfortunately, Twelfth Night has been canceled after the tragic loss of cast member Danny Friedland.
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