Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's review of Dancing at Lughnasa
Last year, Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble gave us an award-winning As You Like It set in the Ozark mountains, complete with a bluegrass band. This time, another bold young group, Equally Represented Arts, offers Twelfth Night with slamming high school lockers and teenaged volubility, and a senior prom to boot, all set in 1999. But it comes with a stunning (and beautiful) ending.
"Immersive theater" is a big plus here, and we actually feel awkward and zombie-like all over again, stomping up and down the big iron spiral staircase in the Centene Building (on Olive, just east of Grand), going from class to class with Shakespeare's Toby Belch (Andrew Kuhlman) and Andrew Aguecheek (Tyson Cole). The sheer atmospherics help make the teenage angst more real, and the teenage torment even worse.
Katy Keating (as Shakespeare's Malvolio, or "Mallory Olio," in this case) is a hall monitor who takes her job very seriously, and who also happens to be a lonely teenage lesbian, on top of it. The other kids rebel against her authority, and devise the play's love letters (attributed to Shakespeare's lovable Olivia: here a new girl, played by Erin Renee Roberts. And from there things go from wildly funny to deeply meaningful and even tragic.
Perhaps the greatest thing about it all is that, in a high school setting, "great characters" are free to become great characters. The stylish freedom of performance in this tragi-comic restaging arises because nobody has to pretend to be all grown up. Their revelry becomes rebellious, out on the schoolyards at Illyria Preparatory Academy, when we sneak out to cut class. And ye gods, don't get me started on that Sex Ed class in the basement.
Okay, here goes: In that unfortunate episode, the gym coach (Anna Skidis Vargas, who plays all the onstage authority figures) has her hands full, teaching about STIs and basic anatomy to bored teenagers. And that's where the show's Malvolio/Mallory has her own cataclysmic breakdown: standing in front of an overhead projector, which first shows a large hand-drawn phallus before Mallory and Olivia end up in the midst of a flock of overhead-projected, hand-drawn heartsand a huge, cartoonish, Sharpie-marker representation of a vagina.
And that's where Mallory gives that big revelatory speech, unwisely throwing open her heart and enthusiastically demonstrating how she's conformed herself to the ideals of that cruel, forged love letter. Her outpouring of affection seems dangerously original and strangely beautiful. I don't want to spoil the rest. But it all hangs together shockingly well, with genuine laughs, and stark, horrific heartbreak, which spill out like a fiery galaxy from a parallel universe. It's a huge triumph of humanity utterly exposed, built upon great artistic structure. It may be a Malvolio to end all Malvolios.
Meanwhile, the cross-dressed Viola, as played by Amanda Wales, is strangely heartbroken, and pursued by a misguided Olivia. That heartbreak stems from Viola's male identity, Sebastian, who has a shocking back-story all his own, hinted at in English class but only to be revealed at the prom, where a few other big shoes are dropped as well. And, of course, Viola is cross-dressing to help her own crush Orsino (the comically anguished Jonah Walker), who of course, pines for the lovable Olivia.
Seriously, at this moment I'm very much in favor of seeing all of Shakespeare's comedies (and even some of the tragedies) adapted into a high school setting, after this show. (You could even reference a few of the histories in history class.) Shot back to adolescence, his characters all seem more naturally vibrant, their schemes more "scathingly brilliant," and in this closed world of notebooks and hidden cigarettes, and very personal aspirations, everything they do comes alive under the direction of Gabe Taylor.
The dialog dives into stretches of Elizabethan verse, then switches back to highly colloquial modern slang, a transition the actors manage smoothly, and even hilariously. But there's a technological downside as we go from one classroom, or gym, or hallway, or photo lab, to the next, where each acting area requires it's own setup of lights and sound equipment. It sometimes proves too demanding for this great, ambitious smaller production company. But ERA is one of the few who are always willing to tests their limits. And how can you complain about that?
In the non-technological planning of it all, there is one notable logistical glitch in this clever, complex show: poor Mallory had to wash her tear-stained face in the slop-sink of a high school darkroom for several minutes on end, after that Sex Ed debacle, as audience members slowly file in around her, coming up two flights from the basement. (I was one of the first to get in, and witnessed the worst of her emotional breakdown, which gradually moderated over time.) When all finally gather, Mallory began another horrific scene, in which we hear the disembodied voice of a school counselor, questioning her psychological stability. A lot of the sound volume, of the counselor speaking (but not present) comes from small speakers behind a partition, and is occasionally inaudible.
Cast all that aside, thoughin this highly enjoyable rewrite, everything still hangs on great characters and their intense relationships. And you walk out afterward thinking two things: 1) Yes, we'll still be enjoying Shakespearein some way, shape, or formfor the next 400 years; and 2) Thank god I'll never have to go back to high school again.
Through May 6, 2017, at the Centene Center for Arts and Education, 3547 Olive St., just east of Grand. For more information go to www.eratheatre.org.