Following in the footsteps of the Shaw Festival’s musically enhanced production of The Admirable Crichton which opened six days ago, Des McAnuff (who also directed) and co-composer Michael Roth have put their artistic heads together and fashioned a show that has the look and feel of a Broadway musical between the wordier bits.
The result is a first half that tickles the funny bone, delights the ear and eye and flows with a pace that makes the time vanish as the trials and tribulations of identical twins (Suzy Jane Hunt bringing a wonderful touch of Ellen DeGeneres to her cross-dressing portrayal of Viola/Cesario and brother Sebastian, given a marvellously blonde outing from the perfectly boyish Trent Pardy), while the second has its moments (unforgettably the sauna scene with a tears-in-your-eyes, wrinkles-on-your butt wardrobe malfunction thanks to Stephen Ouimette’s selfless, name fulfilling portrayal of Sir Andrew Aguecheek) but can’t maintain the early momentum up to the finish line. (After last evening’s litany of “Don’t get/go mad, get even” in Titus Andronicus, ever-faithful steward Malvolio’s final utterance, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you,” sent an especially awful chill down the spine thanks in no little part to Tom Rooney’s superbly nuanced performance—tellingly, that pain-filled vow didn’t even draw a nervous laugh.)
As with the play, the bulk of the songs belong to Feste, a free-lance jester-for-hire whose mirth can only begot by exceptional wisdom. As is his custom lo these many years, Ben Carlson excels with every role he’s offered. While not always at home on every range, the invigorating guitarist unravelled the meaning of all of his songs (whose lineage can be traced back to the very first line of the show: “If music be the food of love, play on”), personifying just what talented troubadours do. Left to his own narrative devices, Shakespeare’s seemingly fractured logic has a most worthy advocate from this extra-versatile player.
The songs themselves are hardly whistle-on-the-way-home material, but have a compelling sense of adventure or quiet introspection as needed. Having the band take stage (replete with Elton John-like white piano) fills the hall with abundant energy and infectious movement to the point where its absence left many pinning for the next cue. The orchestrations (also Roth) employ a bevy of hues but—quite understandably given the spread out movers, shakers and wailers—had some difficulty maintaining ensemble and balance. One notable modulation keying up a second verse was like a breath of fresh tonal air.
Playing Oliver Hardy to Ouimette’s Stan Laurel, Brian Dennehy was a sodden hoot bringing Sir Toby Belch to drunken life. The “everybody’s favourite uncle” had unerring timing (both verbally and through full-figure body language). The constant tipplers’ late night household-waking nightcap sequence will earn a special place on anyone’s highlight reel. With much physical humour before and aft (a hallmark of McAnuff unleashed) who knew that a popping toaster could get one of the biggest laughs of the night?
Trying valiantly to keep the extra-thin plot going (nobleman pines for not-on-your-life noblewoman who, in turn, gets the sudden hots for nobleman’s go-between even as him/herself is enraptured with her master who can’t see the gender bending for the love of Twiggy), Mike Shara effectively keeps the slight thread weaving its way into the relationship quilt as Orsino, Duke of Illyria (in the same postal code as the former Yugoslavia). Countess Olivia is well served by Sara Topham’s full-service infatuation for the fetching youth (their full-on kiss not quite as eventful as Seana McKenna’s back-for-more lip lock in this season’s Richard III). More firmly ensconced on the innuendo train is ship captain Antonio’s (Michael Blake a worthy seaman) oft professed “love” for Sebastian (whom he rescued in the same shipwreck as Viola was supposed to have drowned), only to have his hopes dashed on the rocks as the dénouement leaves him unshackled but alone.
Remorselessly aiding and abetting the humiliation of the earnest Malvolio are Maria (Cara Ricketts has great fun with the conniving role, adding strength to her co-servant’s trauma) and Fabian (played with insightful wit and just a dollop of shame thanks to Juan Chioran’s savvy reading of the part). This secondary plot is truly pathetic relief to those desperately searching for love and one of the biggest challenges for any director.
While clearly favouring the notion of a twelfth night as entertainment over the dastardly things humankind does to one another, the show has so many beautifully staged (Debra Hanson’s overall design is superb and at one with living love large), zany scenes, it’s a production not to miss and a wonderful homage to actor extraordinaire, Peter Donaldson. JWR