Art Thou Ready To Rumble?
Paula Plum Scores A Knockout
With The Lyric Stage/Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
Twelfth Night is considered one of William Shakespeare’s three great comedies. It is also a dark comedy, as well as the Shakespeare play that contains the most music. While it is not exactly known what the songs would have sounded like in the original productions, the lyrics are contained in the plays.
In this production, the Lyric Stage Company has joined with Actors’ Shakespeare Project and the results are delightful. Under the creative direction of Paula Plum, the action is moved from the Elizabethan Period to the 1920s. The set is modeled after New Orleans’ French Quarter and is softly lit, giving it a jazz club feel.
This is fitting, as Ms Plum has employed the very talented David Wilson to compose music to accompany the lyrics Mr. Shakespeare has provided. The bluesy jazz has the feel of Billie Holiday crossed with George Lewis. The songs are performed by Rachel Belleman in the role of Feste. Ms Belleman has an exquisite voice as she sings while being accompanied by digital music that is piped in through a juke box. Other than realizing there is not an orchestra present, you would never guess Mr. Wilson has made this happen through the wonders of modern technology. There are also flapper era songs such as I Wanna Be Loved By You and Someone To Watch Over Me that are played as incidental music.
Twelfth Night utilizes many of the familiar devices Shakespeare uses. A pair of twins that are separated, gender bending, a shipwreck, mistaken identity, and a character who is outcast by the others. It can get confusing, but that is the charm in it all.
In addition to Rachel Belleman’s Feste, and she brings much to her fine performance than her amazing singing talents, the stage is populated with a strong cast of Boston veteran actors and young talent who do not disappoint.
Bobbie Steinbach and Alejandro Simoes as Sir Toby Belch and Aquecheek respectively, bring a vaudeville/slapstick flavor to their parts. There are also shades of Laurel and Hardy. They are dressed in brightly colored costumes and wear derbies. Ms Steinbach reminded me a bit of the Penguin from the Batman series. As usual, she is a presence on the stage but never at the expense of her fellow players. Michael Forden Walker in straw hat as Valentine and Maria played by Jennie Israel round out the gang who set up Malvolio. This is Shakespeare meets vaudeville.
They are really funny, but the darkness also comes through when they begin to gaslight the somber Malvolio played by Richard Snee. This is a more sympathetic Malvolio than is sometimes seen. He is stern and unforgiving in his treatment of Sir Toby and Viola. A steward to Olivia, he is duped into believing she has romantic intentions toward him. The scene where he dresses in cross garters and yellow stockings is right out of Sid Caesar and is hysterical, which makes his embarrassment the more palpable when he finds out he has been duped. Imprisoned for madness, his rage is understandable, and Mr. Snee delivers Malvolio’s angry words to his tormenters like a cannon shot fired into the audience.
The dueling scene is presented as a boxing match, and while the legacy of Joe Louis is not threatened, it is fun and lively. Hearing the lines “Art thou ready to rumble?” was really amusing and a nice touch by Ms Plum.
Samantha Richert is a boozy Olivia dressed as a 1920’s flapper. She and Orsino are both smitten with Cesario who is really Viola in disguise. Played by Hayley Spivey, Viola has been shipwrecked in Illyria and believes her twin brother Sebastian (Dominic Carter) has been lost.
Ms Spivey and Mr. Carter are both making their Shakespearean debuts in Twelfth Night, but you would never know it by their performances. Hayley Spivey is confident and recites her lines flawlessly. Her timing is impeccable and precise as she moves effortlessly across the stage.
Dominic Carter has fewer lines, but the old saying about less being more certainly holds true for him. There is almost a shyness about his performance that makes it both subtle yet understatedly powerful. I was very impressed with both Mr. Carter and Ms Spivey. I hope they will take to the stage in future Shakespeare productions.
This Lyric Stage/Actors’ Shakespeare Project collaboration is terrific. The Lyric has not put on a Shakespeare play in some time and opening up the theatre in Copley Square for this production shows how well two different companies can work together. I thought “Oh No! Two Artistic Directors working on the same project at the same time! This could get crazy.” However, Spiro Veloudos at the Lyric and Christopher Edwards from ASP obviously work well together. I think they also let director Paula Plum have a free hand, and that was wise.
Some people are not happy when a Shakespeare play is set in a more modern era. It never has bothered me as long as it stays true to the original in dialog and meaning. This does not mean it always works. This one does, and it works extremely well. It is highly entertaining, funny, the music is perfect while the story remains intact and as meaningful as ever.
To those of you who still suffer from the slings and arrows of that high school teacher who managed to instill in you a lifelong dislike of the world’s greatest playwright, have no fear as you will enjoy this production. I heard some people at intermission saying the play was confusing. Well, it is and is supposed to be. The characters become confused. Many plays take time to resolve themselves as they progress, and this is rarely an issue. In Shakespeare, however, I think the ghosts of teachers past sometimes haunt us. My advice: don’t hang on every word, don’t worry if you feel you are not getting the story immediately, remember that you will not be given a test right after, and most of all, remember that you are not reading it. You are watching it which is the way it was meant to be experienced.
Relax and enjoy what has to be one of, if not the, best productions of a Shakespeare play this season. As Orsino says “If music be the food of love, play on; Give me excess of it”. The music at the Lyric stage is certainly the food of love…and of great theatre.
Photos by Mark S. Howard
Through April 28
The Lyric Stage, Copley Square, Boston