What’s a bunch of newly-degreed kids going to do for the summer? If it’s theater majors, the obvious answer is: put on a Shakespeare play! Thus was born H&D Productions, to keep a cadre of smart, talented young artists sharp in their craft. The result is a Twelfth Night as beholden to the Disney Channel as to the Globe Theatre—and marvel of marvels, it works!
If Shakespeare wrote any screwball comedy, it’s Twelfth Night: a crowd-pleasing play with over-the top characters like Sir Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek; crammed with practical jokes and improbable mistaken identities. It’s silly, light, and still full of lovely poetry, with an undertone of wistful melancholy to give it some depth. Some companies treat the play like a Robert Altman film, with characters just this side of realism; others highlight its hidden current of violence, treating Malvolio’s false imprisonment as a brutal class struggle. H&D goes a different route: under the direction of Chicago-based Jared McDaris, they plunge boldly into sitcom territory, with cartoonishly exaggerated characters, silly walks, cross-dressing, and Commedia del’Arte abandon. So doing, they capture something about the play that more respectful productions don’t always: it’s really, really funny.
Melancholy Duke Orsino has always been a too silly a character to play completely straight: mooning over the Countess Olivia, bidding his musicians to play “the food of love,” and then peevishly cutting them off saying, basically “I’m not in the mood any more.” Stuart Mott embraces the wackiness with shameless hammery, while still playing the character’s distinct moods and reactions; a winning strategy that’s followed by the entire cast. But as broad as their characterizations are, the players understand what they’re saying, know what they’re feeling, and they show it; a great boon, especially compared to other attempts to make Shakespeare “accessible.” The actors sometimes emphasize their feelings with adlib nonverbal noises, to great comic effect, and sometimes the action stops dead—everyone is just too befuddled to speak—which adds a nice sense of rhythm. In this looney-toons setting, the moments of poetry sparkle all the more.
The courtyard of St Thomas Moore High School is blessed with extraordinary acoustics; you can hear everything and still enjoy the summer breeze. Maybe it’s the miraculous intervention of the Virgin Mary, whose statue, standing amidst shrubbery, is the only scenery there is. They use it well, at one point using Mary as a stand-in for the sorrowful Olivia, at others taking out their frustrations on a poor patch of much-abused prairie grass. It’s also fun watching a family of birds try to work around the play; at one point Malvolio, tied to a tree, actually has to duck the robins zooming in and out of the branches.
In the role of Malvolio, Ethan Hall is a hilariously scrunch-faced, weaselly factotum right out of Monty Python; his misguided courtship of Olivia is as hysterical as can be. Bridgette Well plays Olivia as the grown-up in the crowd, but she surrenders herself to romance with goofy enthusiasm. Shanna Theiste does the drunken troublemaker Sir Toby in male drag, with a clownishly overstuffed belly, pancake pallor, five-o’clock shadow from Ben Nye, she channels a pantomimic, silent-movie style that’s hard to resist. Not all the players have equal aptitude for Shakespearean verse. Luckily, as Viola, the girl-turned-boy (because, well, because), Hayley Cotton carries the show with effortless, comic heart; we understand every word she says, and we’re as happy as she is when she wins the love of her life, as well as her long-lost twin brother, played most credibly by Glenn Widdicombe as a regular guy thrown into a madcap situation. As a grace note, director McDaris acknowledges the losers, leaving them unhappy onstage while the lovers run off to their nuptial beds. For the rain, it raineth every day, you know (clarification: it didn’t rain the day we saw the play, so, poetic license).
This is obviously a labor of love, and it does one’s heart good to see. The Bard is in fine hands with the next generation; he can take the mild battering they give him. The production values are understandably, shall we say, on the bargain side; but everything is thought out: handmade signs lead you right to the courtyard, bottled water is thoughtfully for sale, and the space is sprayed for mosquitoes before the show. That, a pleasant summer evening, and a few good laughs—what more could you ask?
by William Shakespeare
plays August 1-3
Friday-Saturday, 6 pm Sunday, 2 pm
St Thomas More High School Courtyard
2601 East Morgan Ave