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Twelfth Night

Chicago Sunday Times January 1996, Hedy Weiss

Directors of Shakespeare often impose a particular style on their productions and the result, more often than not, seems like little more than a whim of personal taste or fashion. But in his ingenious and ultimately revelatory staging of Twelfth Night, British actor Michael Pennington has found a setting that not only fits the play like a glove, but one that illuminates the motivation behind much of its thorny and often cruel comedy.

Working as a guest director with Chicago’s Shakespeare Repertory Company, Pennington has subtly and consistently transferred the play’s mythical kingdom of Illyria to a city with a strong resemblance to post-Civil War Charleston, South Carolina. And the choice turns out to be far more than decorative, or one with appeal for an American audience and actors.

Twelfth Night is a tale of a brother and sister who have been torn apart, and of an aristocratic household whose love cannot thrive and where petty meanness is the name of the game, revenge and confusion are everywhere in this once prosperous now defeated Southern city.

Pennington does not knock you over the head with any of this. His set designer, Donald Eastman, has created a wall of shutters, another of sliding French doors and a third with classical columns along a portico that looks out onto a Low Country beach landscape. From there everything falls into place, with Nan Zabriskie’s winning costumes – some lavish, some tattered – carrying the theme further.

Olivia, the mistress of the house (the elegant, wonderfully controlled Lisa Dodson), is mourning for her dead brother – a casualty of the war it now appears. And in one scene she even wears a silk kimono, suggesting a taste for Far Eastern luxuries. Beyond this, the setting deftly explains characters behavior. For example, the blustery Sir Toby Belch (a delicious portrayal by Howard Witt), is now played as an over-the-hill soldier who has gone down in dishonor and is acting out in an obnoxious, childish way. Antonio (the impeccable Ned Schmidtke), the sailor who rescues a young man at sea, is clearly a former blockade-runner for the Union side and so is in disfavor in “Illyria.” Even Olivia’s steward, Malvolio (Greg Vinkler, in a masterful turn that makes even the famous letter scene new), takes on added colors as he pathetically aspires to the faded aristocracy.

Viola and Sebastian, the fraternal twins (played with true grace by Elyse Mirto and Christopher Gerson), appear to be well born Yankees who were lost at sea. And Olivia’s servants (including the excellent Sarajane Avidon) are all Irish immigrants.

Pennington, who also knows that many scholars believe Southern English has the sound closest to Shakespeare’s own Elizabethan tones, uses this information cleverly. He hasn’t asked his actors to adopt fake Southern accents; they use standard speech. But the foppish dimwit, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (zesty Frank Farrell), does have a notable drawl. And all the music of Alaris Jan’s appealing score – including the songs of the fool, Feste (a superb performance by Ronald Keaton) – have the twang of a string band.

Add to this Shakespeare’s incomparable gift for conjuring the human potential for nastiness, as well as reconciliation, and you have a production of tremendous appeal and unexpected insights.

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