Twelfth Night

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Josie Rourke
At Chicago Shakespeare Company

Seven Thousand Gallons of Water Put Shakespeare Right in the Swim

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Twelfth Night

Chicago Shakespeare Theater seldom disappoints. The plays are tried and true, the acting is always splendid, the productions are often spirited and innovative, and never has there been a staging of Twelfth Night like this one!

The theater’s location on Navy Pier inspired scenic and costume designer Lucy Osborne to recapture that ambience indoors. She is quoted as saying, “There’s something about a pier that suggests a voyage into the unknown. . . .and pleasure piers are just fundamentally playful and sort of decadent.”

Her brilliant achievement fills the stage with a notable body of water (7,000 gallons) surrounded by descending wooden stairs and walkways which punctuate the sea. Characters fall in regularly and with impunity, often becoming entirely submerged.

Is it overkill? Does the staging drown the text? Sometimes – but it is all so spectacular it seems niggling to complain.

In this production, everything is larger than life: not only the sea, but also the curved, heart-shaped colossal wooden planks embracing the rear stage, reminiscent both of the interior of a sea-worthy vessel, and a valentine. And this comedy is all heart and romance: Viola (Michelle Beck) and Sebastian (Peterson Townsend), twins separated by a shipwreck, wash ashore, each believing the other dead. Viola, disguised as a man becomes a page in the court of Duke Orsino (Mark L. Montgomery). She falls in love with him, but his passions are fixed on Countess Olivia (Karen Aldridge) who has forsworn men for the next seven years. Not to worry. When all is revealed, Olivia ends up with Sebastian, and Viola gets her Duke.

Mistaken identity plots, often used by the bard, were not original. Shakespeare’s contributions are in the delicious subplots, centering on the underlings: most especially wonderfully comic characters, tippler Sir Toby Belch (Scott Jaeck), foppish Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Dan Kenney), and – most especially – ego-centered, sober Malvolio (Larry Yando).

Yando, as Malvolio provides the highlight of the evening – worth seeing even if it stood alone. The character, a steward employed by the Countess, harbors a secret hope of winning her. Exploiting this, his fellow servants compose a letter, forged by waiting gentlewoman Maria (Ora Jones), speaking of her love for him. Belch, Aguecheek and the jester Feste (Ross Lehman) hide behind a hedge to watch him find and read it.

While the eavesdroppers are hilarious, the scene really belongs to Yando. His reaction to the letter, couched in a multi-faceted monologue, move from skepticism to hope, becoming ever more enthusiastic as he plans to follow what he believes are her instructions. Yando’s mobile face and gestures capture the array of emotions perfectly.

Twelfth night is a delightful comedy, full of broad humor. Importing Josie Rourke from London’s Bush Theatre to work with this seasoned cast provides a powerhouse evening. The audience responded with a well-deserved standing ovation.

Highly Recommended

Reviewed by Beverly Friend

At Chicago Shakespeare Theater , Navy Pier, Chicago, IL, 312-595-5600 www.chicagoshakes.com, Tickets $54-70, Tuesdays at 7:30 pm, Wednesdays at 1 & 7:30 pm, Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays 7:30pm, Saturdays 3 & 8pm, Sundays at 3 pm, Through June 7, 2009, running time is 2 hours, 40 minutes with intermission