Admittedly, I’m not as familiar with Shakespeare as I’d prefer to be. Despite having taken a class on his work in my senior year of high school, my knowledge and recollection of it have escaped me similar to that of my Spanish. Three years studied, six years unpracticed and I can barely construct a paragraph in the language with confidence. Sad, yes. Hopeless, no.
I spent my Saturday night relearning the playwright at Post5 Theater’s production of Twelfth Night in Southeast Portland. I’ve never read Twelfth Night and in starting my lesson from scratch, I already felt like I forgot my homework. Fortunately though, I didn’t need the practice because my quiz was open book. This is a common theme for Post5 Theatre. I’m comforted by their “come as you are” attitude, or in my case, “come with your limited Shakespeare knowledge and let us translate for you.” I can’t tell if Cassandra and Ty Boice have purposefully created this environment or if it’s simply a byproduct of their selectiveness for the performers and volunteers that they enlist. Needless to say, it’s effective, whatever it is.
Twelfth Night not only represents a triangle but is full of them. One side is represented by reality, one is delusion (reality’s inverse) and both are balanced by love. Cassandra Boice describes it as “deceptively opaque in its place in literature. There is no clear plot that makes Twelfth Night relevant.” She recounts the process as a challenge for her asking questions like, “How to make this play – not fresh, but relevant?” Settling into it, she finds the human condition to be her timeless piece of interest and focus.
The story is set in Illyria and begins with a ship-wrecking storm that casts twin siblings Viola and Sebastian (Jessica Tidd & Sean Kelly) apart. Both survive, unbeknownst to one another. Viola disguises herself as a man and begins work for Orsino (Tom Walton). She falls madly in love with Orsino while doing his bidding in professing his love for Olivia, the wealthy countess (Chip Sherman). The play is full of hi-jinks surrounding this triangle and involving many others. We meet characters like the drunkard Sir Toby (Jeff Gorham) and his mischievous friends. A stubborn and rather stuffy Malvolio (Ty Boice) is steward to Olivia and later comedic prey of Toby and friends.
What transpires in this play is important but more than the story are the actors that bring these characters to life. Both shows I’ve been able to see at Post5 have been exceptional; not necessarily because of the choice of content but instead because of the strong acting. I don’t fully understand why I’m so impressed by this. My guess is that I’m complacent about plots in general and so my focus lies elsewhere: the acting, the costuming, the use of language, music and art. I’m easily bored, you see, and even more easily distracted. I’m not sure how I feel admitting that. Part of it I feel is generational and so maybe that’s why I feel like this viewpoint is crucial to arts/theater review. Let me explain.
If I were to bottle Jeff Gorham’s laughter, it would take form as a smoky perfume of tobacco, fennel, jasmine and patchouli. His heavy outbursts and saturated gaze enrapture. His gruffness as Sir Toby shows in his swagger. I don’t know him as Jeff. He is all that I imagine the drunkard and rapscallion, Toby, to be.
If Chip Sherman’s confidence as Olivia were a place, I would live there. I would wear it like the sun, let my pores drink it up. It might be a beach house in a desolate region of the world. Or it may be a bustling city like Prague, Madrid, or Amsterdam. Any mixture would be accurate as long as it distilled fascination.
I believe Malvolio drew on Ty’s eccentric inner-child. His facial expressions are a mask I’d like to wear on my dark days, or those of others close to me. Ty embodies a proud, calloused and authoritative surface at first until Malvolio believes he can be loved. It’s then that we see him as childish, loving and contused within. He is the comic relief that we crave in each other for survival. He is the strange and genuine self, detaching from the swollen seriousness that is what we believe we are.
Toward the end, and after I was acclimated, I nestled in to the times where I felt like I was watching rehearsal. This is not to say that the actors lost any sense of professionalism but instead, I could see their personalities pass through even the veil of their characters. The duality of the professional/actor suit with their own persona was alarming at times. Maybe after a while they grew exhausted and punch drunk from speaking in iambic pentameter for so long? I can’t blame them. I was actually beginning to understand it again. I might have actually left there speaking that way for a few hours – I can’t be sure. Regardless, there were moments when I saw a genuine, almost surprised smirk in the air too – which left me donning one of my own to the metaphorical curtain close.
Twelfth Night will be showing Friday-Sunday, now through May 16th.