Rourke’s Twelfth Night set to make a splash at CST

A preview performance of CST’s Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays and best gender-bending comedies, promises a goodhearted production that will bring spring fun back after a gloomy Chicago winter.

By Lisbeth Redfield

This just in from Navy Pier: Pompous actors are humorous and drunk actors are funny, but wet actors are hilarious. A preview performance of Twelfth Night, the last big play of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s season, promises a goodhearted production that will bring spring fun back after a gloomy Chicago winter.

One of Shakespeare’s most popular plays and best gender-bending comedies, Twelfth Night deals with a love-sick duke, an obstinate countess, two frustrated drunks, and a pair of identical twins. Let loose in the small state of Illyria, separated twins Viola and Sebastian throw into confusion social, behavioral, and gender norms as well as bewildering every other character in the play.

The text of Twelfth Night is extraordinarily flexible and can be interpreted a number of different ways. The “protagonist” and “point” of the play are issues under constant debate and subject to revision. In this production, director Josie Rourke brings a light and entertainingly exaggerated touch to Shakespeare’s occasionally dark humor. Just as she is sure that the “point” is about social norms, Rourke is sure that the “main character” is really Viola—or, more specifically, the force that is Viola-and-Sebastian.

“These twins are able to tilt the lives of other characters to an extreme,” Rourke comments in her program notes. Viola and Sebastian’s identity swaps throw off the ancient rhythms of the two households and intersect in comic ways with Orsino’s ostentatious wooing, Olivia’s self-involved brooding, and Sir Toby’s aimless drunkenness. In this production, it is as though all three plots had been waiting for something to wake them up, to shock them out of their indulgence and self-absorption.

Set and costume designer Lucy Osborn earns her stars here, creating a world of extremes for characters pushed to the limits. On entering the theater, you’re struck by the huge cut-out heart made of blond wood slats that frames the back portion of the stage. The set piece exemplifies the play’s gently off-kilter visual world, which expresses the characters’ humor and posturing and perfectly complements the text. If the ostentatious Orsino could choose his set, he would go for the big, splashy heart. The choice to dress the twins in eye-smarting turquoise (against pastels and golds) shows just how clearly these two are outsiders. Viola’s blue outshines even the clown’s garb as she gently takes over his job of giving the world a good shake.

The most important part of the design, however, is the use of water. The front thrust of the stage has been transformed into an ankle-deep pool of water, striped with more wooden slats around the edges. The center is a square pool which, despite the sauna-style steps, is deep enough for diving, creating what Osborn calls “effectively a large, heavily used swimming pool.”

The water is used for gags, but it is really there to mirror the role of the twins: There is something uninhibited and transformative about this water. Characters invariably fall in as they loosen up or jump in as they change their opinions, minds, identities. Viola swims through the pool at the beginning when she becomes Cesario and then, finally acknowledging, “I am Viola,” at the end, jumps back in again to reemerge on the other side in her old role as a lady.

While the technical elements may be attention-grabbing, the actors’ grasp of Shakespeare’s text is every bit as dazzling as the set. This is a fine ensemble cast, particularly good at communicating the play’s humor. The energy is high and the comedy is tight; secondary character Sir Andrew Aguecheek threatens to steal his first scene with his spot-on farce. Michelle Beck grounds the play with a giddy, human, and entirely lovable Viola. Ross Lehman as Feste makes a particularly strong impression by bringing out a less successful side of the clown who is so often played as effortlessly funny. And CST vet Larry Yando plays Malvolio for the straightest of straight laughs, who sports the brightest of yellow stockings and the silliest of cross-gartering ever to cross a stage.

Naturalism this ain’t, but fun it is. And it’s a particularly satisfying, University of Chicago kind of fun, where “amusing” is grounded in an accessible, intellectual message. Mainly, though, this play is an incredibly entertaining performance, because with the gloomy winter and failing economy, who doesn’t want to do a cannonball into the comedy pool? So jump in—the water’s fine.