REVIEWSTheatre Reviews

Twelfth Night (Shakespeare 400 Chicago)

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Sean Holmes

Music and Sound by Tom Haines and Ross Hughes

Produced by Filter Theatre and Chicago Shakespeare Theater

A Play as an Excuse for Play

Filter Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night is billed as a “raucous” hybrid between Shakespeare’s comedy, a rock concert, and an improv sketch show. That kind of humor is best-suited to people, probably mostly young ones, who are familiar with the play, but want to see it used in a highly informal manner. That’s not a bad idea with a comedy, but the Filter production, now at Chicago Shakespeare as part of the Shakespeare 400 Festival, hardly derives any of its humor from Shakespeare’s text, or even his characters and situations. Instead, the six actors and two musicians use the play’s heavy focus on music (the food of love) as an excuse to play with sound for ninety minutes.

Sandy Foster (Maria) and Dan Poole (Sir Toby Belch). Photos by Mark Garvin.

The music for this show, which is mostly played by Fred Thomas and drummer Alan Pagan, includes a key harmonica and computer-generated tones which can be manipulated with remote devices. It’s the sort of sound you often hear in small scale underground alt or indie rock, and Chicago Shakespeare’s upstairs stage looks like an appropriate venue for such a concert. Harry Jardine, who plays both Orsino and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, begins the audience interaction by having us fill in the play’s opening lines. Normally I would describe the plot of the play here, but as this opening hints, this Twelfth Night is best-suited for people who know the show extremely well, and find it more interesting to watch it get taken apart than told.

Ronke Adekoluejo (Olivia) and Fergus O’Donnell (Malvolio)

We still have Viola, played by Amy Marchant, as the sea-battered survivor of a shipwreck who, thinking her brother has drowned, disguises herself as a boy to protect herself in this strange new country, and winds up on the wrong side of a love triangle. Of all the actors, Marchant’s performance is the one most similar to a conventional production, and she is allowed a few moments to bring pathos or sweetness to the proceedings. Jardine, as the idiotic Sir Andrew, Dan Poole, as the alcoholic jerk Sir Toby, and Sandy Foster, as both the lugubrious clown Feste and cunning servant Maria, rebel against the play’s structure as much as they do against Lady Olivia (Ronke Adekoluejo) and Malvolio (a sonorous, scowling Fergus O’Donnell). They attempt to navigate the floor while a microphone amplifies their every step, repeat the same stanza of a song endlessly, make orgiastic noises as a commentary on the actions, and corrupt Olivia to the point where she joins in their behavior by humping an electric bass.

Dan Poole (Sir Toby) and Amy Marchant (Viola)

The moment of the show with the greatest amount of audience interaction is a game in which we toss Velcro balls at Jardine’s head, in hope of making them stick. My companion that evening won, and got to join Jardine onstage in a Velcro cap of his own, while other audience members who wanted to be a part of things were encouraged to form a conga line. When Malvolio shows up to ruin everybody’s fun and snatch away our free food, our sympathies are firmly against him, and we join with the performers in treating the text as just a very loose frame in which to do whacky things. But this is the most interesting moment in a whole production which is meant provoke similar riotous responses from the audience. A lot of the rest of it was irritating, although it’s possible that’s because we didn’t understand what the production was meant to be offering. There is an overlap between fans of improv and Shakespeare, and for those people, Filter’s Twelfth Night may be of interest. Those less familiar with Shakespeare or who desire a more substantial experience may want to check out the many other fine events of the Festival, including the other production of Twelfth Night at Chicago Shakespeare, which will overlap with Filter’s.

Somewhat Recommended

Jacob Davis
[email protected]

Reviewed March 2, 2016

For more information, see Twelfth Night’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at Chicago Shakespeare’s upstairs theatre, 800 E Grand Ave, Navy Pier, Chicago. Tickets start at $48; to order, call 312-595-5600 or visit Plays through March 13. Running time is ninety minutes with no intermission.