Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night was conceived for the revelries of Christmas—to be more exact, for the 12th day after Christmas, as a finale of the winter season; a time to eat, drink, and be merry. There's no reason the same jolly sentiment can't apply to spring, even a very cold, slow spring such as we're experiencing in Montana. There have been just enough sunny days recently to inspire at least a little beer drinking on outdoor patios and perhaps a barbecue or two.
The Montana Actors' Theatre rendition of Twelfth Night captures that summer-fever spirit well. Shakespeare's play was set during the late 16th and early 17th century in the ancient region of Illyria, on the Adriatic Sea. Missoula director Linda Grinde has set her production in mid-1800's California, when Spanish nobility ruled large swaths of land worked by the native population. It's an apt re-imagining. The Spanish nobles in California, as Grinde points out in her director's note, had the same idle lifestyle as Illyria's aristocrats in their kingdom by the sea: all play and amusement.
The opening scene of MAT's production begins with a stormy ocean created by what look like two silky blue scarves that the actors flap in the air. Another actor ducks in and out of the waves holding a toy ship, which he comically bounces between the scarves to show that it's tossed in the storm. This sets the mood for the entire play, a combination of silly humor, illusions, and romantic airs.
The main illusion starts when Sebastian and his sister Viola are separated at sea during a shipwreck. Thinking her brother dead, Viola disguises herself as a man, Cesario, and begins working for Orsino, an aristocrat who is in love with the rich and fair Olivia. Orsino sends Cesario to broker a romantic relationship between him and Olivia, but Olivia ends up falling in love with Cesario instead, not realizing he is really Viola. Meanwhile, Viola has come to love Orsino. And, on top of it all, Sebastian is not dead. Since he and Viola now look like identical men, they are constantly mistaken for one another. Mayhem erupts. Pranks are played. Hilarity ensues. Like A Midsummer Night's Dream and other Shakespeare comedies, a big, soap-operatic mess has to be made before everything can be put back in order.
There are plenty of reasons to see this show. Sam Williamson as Sir Toby Belch, the drunk, jolly, mischievous uncle of Olivia, causes all kinds of fantastic trouble with his companion, Sir Andrew, who is played with a wonderfully affected simple-mindedness by Payton Jessup. Rebecca Schaffer emits hilarious vanity as Olivia, which turns to sympathetic desperation as she falls in love with the pirate-like page Cesario (who is really Viola). That gender-bending part isn't easy to pull off, but Alexsa Prince gives Cesario a boyish, mustachioed charm. Flustered by Olivia's advances and by her own longing for Orsino, she's able to do the masculine strut that makes her final reveal all the more fun. And fabulous British actor Jim Badcock (in his last performance in Missoula, sadly) makes Olivia's wretched steward Malvolio more than entertaining. Badcock's played the fool before (the ass in A Midsummer Night's Dream), but here he's more complex as an arrogant, prim villain who finds himself humiliated by a prank. Wearing yellow stockings and cross garters, he often steals the spotlight. There are other solid performances—too many to name, and that's a good thing.
If you've seen Twelfth Night before, you should see it with this spicy, Spanish twist. Spanish guitar scores the show. The characters pepper their lines with Buenos Díases and Señors. The set, designed by Reid Reimers, is simple but rich with bright adobe colors and antique furniture, and it occupies three corners of the theater, giving the audience the sense they're in the thick of it.
If you haven't seen Twelfth Night—or even much Shakespeare—don't be afraid. You were able to figure out the dialect in "Deadwood" and get past the first, cleverly crafted episodes of "The Wire," right? And this rendition makes it easy because the actors look like they're having so much fun. As with all attempts at Shakespeare, there are moments when the actors seem more focused on just spitting out the words gracefully than acting their roles. Those moments are few and far between, however, buried by a natural flow in spite of all that iambic pentameter.
Twelfth Night continues at the Crystal Theatre Thursday, May 12, through Sunday, May 15, at 7:30 PM nightly. $12/$6 student rush tickets.