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Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Opening Comedies Score

Between a pair of imposing pillars hangs an elaborately wrought-iron gate, at its center a bear’s head shield. Suddenly the bear lets out a mighty growl, recalling the MGM lion’s roar, and the gate, a projection, gives way to one of those scratchy old-time newsreels with the headlines MOVIELAND MELANCHOLY and TRAGEDY AT SEA. Thus with the first of many ingenious inventions, director Christopher Liam Moore grounds a dazzling production of Twelfth Night in 1930s Hollywood, clearly presents the two traumatic back-stories that are about to collide, and establishes the fact that this Shakespearean comedy, running all season in the BowmerTheatre, dwells as much on disaster and dilemma as delight.

Twelfth Night features two women who have each lost a brother. Movie star Olivia (Gina Daniels), dressed in black, cloisters herself in her room and vows to mourn her sibling for seven years. 

Credit Jenny Graham | Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Orsino (Elijah Alexander) shares a laugh with “Cesario,” who is really Viola (Sara Bruner) in disguise.

Yacht-wrecked and cast ashore near Illyria Studios, Viola (Sara Bruner) doesn’t have that option, nor, we suspect would this bundle of life-energy choose it if she did. Olivia’s grief is all about her; Viola’s commemorates her brother in the most radical way: instead of joining him in a living death, she becomes him, donning copies of his trousers and bright green blazer. In her sprightly androgyny, Bruner’s Viola presents a challenge to the binary strictures of gender and sexuality. She opens a tantalizing liminal space whenever she’s onstage.

Around her, the self-absorbed fantasy-land of Hollywood fits Shakespeare’s Illyria like a long-lost glass slipper. Studio head Orsino paddles in his pool buoyed by an inner tube, in infantile contrast to Viola’s surviving the sea. The temperamental Olivia displays the glamorous sheen and hungry ego of celebrity, and the fool Feste (Rodney Gardiner), a song-and-dance man, plies racial caricature to stay in the game.

Danforth Comins finds unusual humanity in Andrew Aguecheek as the trust-fund son, perhaps, of a defunct director, never without the stem of a cocktail glass between his fingers. Adrift in a perennial childhood, he excels at the back kick, yet in everything else, he’s always a couple steps off the mark. Set on marrying Olivia, he paints on an Errol Flynn moustache before doing battle with his rival, Viola-Cesario, a showdown that pits his lily versus hers.

As Malvolio, Olivia’s steward, Ted Deasy is a buttoned-down, robotic giant, whose moral surveillance might be scary if he didn’t sleep in a hairnet. His gulling is laugh-out-loud brilliant. A send-up of narcissism with a three-way mirror as its main prop, it moves like a long, slow curve as Deasy “revolves” in his one-track mind every nuance of Maria’s fake note, which he found stuck to the sole of his shoe like toilet paper.

Viola’s twin, Sebastian (also Sara Bruner) shows up alive in the second half, and is more than willing to be led off to the wedding chamber by an amazed Olivia. Meanwhile Viola-Cesario is finding it more and more difficult to hide her womanhood from Orsino, who’s been manifesting signs of attraction himself. It’s time to unveil the different twins—to identify boy and girl.

Here Moore plumbs Twelfth Night to its core, and invites a single Bruner to emerge as the embodiment of both. Reunion becomes union. Through a technical sleight-of-hand with the frisson of miracle, this production suggests that life and love be celebrated for their daring and creative energy, not stifled by the claustrophobia of gender.

Speaking of daring and energy, Sean Graney’s adaptation of The Yeoman of the Guard becomes a raucous hootenanny that turns the Thomas Theatre into a safe but squirmy mosh pit. Usually judged the least comic of Gilbert and Sullivan’s collaborations, this Yeoman, also running through October 30, is packed with hilarious surprises.

Credit Jenny Graham | Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Warden Carruthers (K. T. Vogt) and Shadbolt the Jailor (Michael Sharon) are the law in Tower Green.

The promenade staging, first of all, means around fifty audience members, perched on hay bales or lounging at the bar, share space with the actors. Thus to all the melodramatic plot twists is added the tension of disaster: what if an audience member doesn’t respond fast enough to an actor’s signal, coming for you? Further, transposing the action to the Wild West enhances the play’s mock-heroic tension as the characters with cowboy accents mouth high-brow diction and sing sophisticated lyrics set to country music.

Graney’s staging brings order to the topsy-turviness by establishing three concentric circles. On the outer perimeter stroll musicians and a squad of convicts tasked with audience control. The scene is a street outside the local jail, where legendary war hero, Fairfax (Jeremy Johnson) is due to be beheaded. Fairfax knows he’s been framed by his cousin (K. T. Vogt), and to prevent her inheriting his estate, he makes a deal with Elsie (Kate Hurster), who happens into town to busk for breath-mints, to marry him ASAP. These three hold down the second circle, one which plays to the audience and mugs blatantly.

The innermost circle hosts the improbable love story of Phoebe (Britney Simpson) and Shadbolt, the Assistant Tormentor at the jail, rendered by Michael Sharon with an irresistible blend of unsavory and sweet. These two fully commit to the crazy, convoluted world they inhabit. The sparkling Phoebe is too absorbed with pining for Fairfax and scorning Shadbolt to notice the audience, and Shadbolt has set his dogged sights on Phoebe. Together they build to an appealing, textured betrothal; it may fall short of the romantic fantasy finally awarded Elsie and Fairfax, but it waves the promise of friction turning into fun.

In an episode of sanity, Molly Tinsley decided twenty years of teaching literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval Academy was enough. She resigned from the faculty, moved west, and now writes full-time in Ashland and Portland. She crafts the Theatre and the Arts column for the Jefferson Journal magazine.