Regional Reviews: Chicago
In using the whole of the Conservatory, rather than confining the action to the Show House room as in years past, this production taps into the company's mission to lay bare the beauty of Shakespeare's language and the sheer, silly joy of his wonderfully human characters to an audience filled with members who are entering into the experience at different levels. Before the show formally begins, the audience is invited to wind their way along the paths lined with lush greenery from around the world. With the glow of the city through the greenhouse glass and the hushed chirp of the Conservatory's insect denizens, it is impossible not to feel as thought one has already been transported to the shores of a distant, unfamiliar land.
The show itself begins with a shanty that summons the audience to the path running along the west side of the Palm Room. Each member of the company then introduces themselves, complete with their own pronouns, as well as the character or characters they play and their pronouns. In the best possible way, the move is silly and educational. It ably reflects and serves Midsommer's commitment not just to diversity in casting, but to true accessibility and inclusion in works that definitely bear the stamp of their age, and it further prepares the audience for the hilarity and chaos at the heart of the play's humor.
McCloskey's adaptation begins with the shipwreck that separates Viola and Sebastian. As the twins embark on their distinct journeys through Illyria, the audience breaks into clusters as they will, as they decide which invitations they will accept to follow which characters. These loosely guided journeys are rather chaotic, to be sure, but collaboration between the actors and stage managers keep things moving smoothly, and any stumbles simply add to the warm, participatory feel.
On the Palm Room's winding paths, actors intersperse bits of actual dialogue and exposition from the play, with improv vamps and songs to help regulate the flow of audience groups through the "fixed" spaces where more formal scenes unfold. Even these have a looseness to them that, overall, contributes to a sense of immersion in the play's action that results in an intriguing liberation from the elements of Shakespeare that can feel like insurmountable work.
All of these positives acknowledged, opening the staging to the whole of the Conservatory and the vagaries of audience movement comes with its share of challenges. The curvature of the path in one of the fixed spaces, paired with the height of the plants in the space, makes it difficult for the audience to see any of the actors, regardless of which end of the room they're viewing the scene from. Elsewhere, the acoustics of the space with the added sound of burbling water leave the actors with the unenviable task of having to choose between honoring some of the quiet, more emotional moments and being audible to much of the audience.
Most of the visual work of the production leans on Cindy Moon's costume design, which is smart in its impressionistic approach. Sebastian and Viola (as Cesario) sport matching turquoise and white "onesies" that whimsically suggest sailor suits. Olivia and and Orsino are the most formally costumed, in exaggeratedly feminine and masculine styles that emphasize both their class status and the gendered conflict that sets the stage for the rest of the play's wackiness. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew sport oversized, squared-off, ill-fitting suits that appropriately border on clown-like, and their "disguises" as they spy on Malvolio are inspired visual humor. Similarly, Malvolio's yellow silk "tails" set the character apart for those unfamiliar with the play and for those in on the prank played by Maria et al., the look provides a gratifyingly long set up for the joke.
The performances by all the cast are engaging enough that one can't help but regret, at least a little, that the trade-off for the considerable fun of the audience choice elements is that it's simply not possible to get the full effect of any one performance. That said, Sonia Goldberg is an absolute stand out as Malvolio. In a version of the play that leans into anarchy, Goldberg anchors things with a deeply human performance that garners empathy without at all compromising the tremendous fun of the plot hatched by Maria, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew. Played, respectively, by Tatiana Pavela, Grant Brown, and Lexy Hope Weixel, this trio establishes the other end of the show's emotional spectrum in collaboration with Izis Mollinedo as Feste the Fool. They take an unapologetically broad approach to the humor, and yet individually and in triangulation, these actors convey their characters' insecurities, jealousies and foibles with an appealing undercurrent of realism.
John Payne's Viola is a character I wish that I'd gotten to spend more time with. Their performance is quiet, wounded and passionate, as Viola copes with loss and love at first sight, and hilarious in an understated way as "Cesario" attempts to fend off Olivia's (played with an amusing mixture of stuffiness and naked thirst by Amy Malcom) advances. In particular, Payne's work with Polley Cooney's Orsino at the show's culmination spoke of an ending that focuses far less on characters winding up in their "proper" romantic dyads and far more on a community healing its injuries and moving forward.
It's an intriguing approach that seems poised to mitigate some of the play's creepier elements (e.g., Orsino's dogged pursuit of the mourning Olivia). My trajectory through the performance afforded me only glimpses of this, yet in the final scene performers including Audrey Napoli (Sebastian) and Kathleen Mitchell (Antonio) managed, in small moments set to the closing much, to convey this vision clearly.
Twelfth Night runs through December 19, 2021, at the Lincoln Park Conservatory, 2391 Stockton Drive, Chicago IL. Masking and proof of vaccination are required for audience members. For tickets and information, visit www.midsommerflight.com.