All Shakespearean updates are not created equal

Susan Wismar (Maria), Andy Falter (Sir Toby), Jesse Massaro (Malvolio) and Adam Poe (Sir Andrew) in a scene from Twelfth Night (photo by Dale Bush)
Appearing in a scene from Twelfth Night are (from left) Susan Wismar (Maria), Andy Falter (Sir Toby), Jesse Massaro (Malvolio) and Adam Poe (Sir Andrew) (photo by Dale Bush)

By Richard Ades

There’s more than one way to update Shakespeare.

One approach, perfected by Josh Whedon’s modern-dress film version of Much Ado About Nothing, is to ignore the time period and concentrate on the story. The effect is to emphasize the timelessness of the characters and their predicaments, even if their language is a particularly flowery form of Elizabethan English.

Another approach is to use the time period and setting to add another layer of meaning to the play—for instance, by relocating Macbeth to a politically unstable part of the world.

Yet a third approach is to use the time period as a way to make the play more accessible to the average theatergoer. That’s the tack Actors’ Theatre has taken with its 1980s version of Twelfth Night.

To tell the truth, I tend to see this approach as a form of surrender. It’s like the thespians have decided it’s too hard to persuade viewers to appreciate Shakespeare for his own sake, so they add a veneer of recognizable references. It’s particularly puzzling when they apply this method to Twelfth Night, which may be the most likable of all the Bard’s comedies.

That said, it must be stated that much works just fine in the production director Mandy Fox has put together on the nifty pastel-colored set Trent Bean has designed for the Schiller Park stage.

Most importantly, Kayla Jackmon is appealing as Viola, the young woman who washes ashore in an unfamiliar land following a shipwreck. We automatically root for her as she responds to her dire situation by disguising herself as a male eunuch and going to work for the love-struck Duke Orsino (Andrew Blasenak).

Also working just fine are the comical figures we meet at the house of the noblewoman Orsino is love-struck for, Olivia (Ashley Frisch). Andy Falter is a Miami Vice-attired hoot as her drunken uncle, Toby Belch, while Adam Poe puts his short stature to humorous use as Olivia’s would-be suitor, Sir Anthony Aguecheek. In addition, Liz Light sings nicely as Olivia’s fool, Feste, and Susan Wismar earns laughs with a Valley Girl interpretation of Olivia’s conniving servant, Maria.

From a comedy standpoint, all this sounds pretty good. But the problem is that director Fox seems to have decided that everything in this updated Twelfth Night has to be played for laughs. Not only does this approach rob the tale of some charming moments, but it forces the actors to find humor in characters that aren’t meant to be funny.

In the first scene, while Viola worries that she lost twin brother Sebastian (Cornelius Hubbard Jr.) in the shipwreck, Ben Sostrom depicts the sea captain who rescued her as a fey stereotype. Needless to say, this undercuts the sadness of the moment.

Viola (Kayla Jackmon, left) unwittingly wins the love of Olivia (Ashley Frisch) while masquerading as a man in Twelfth Night (photo by Dale Bush)
Viola (Kayla Jackmon, left) unwittingly wins the love of Olivia (Ashley Frisch) while masquerading as a man in Twelfth Night (photo by Dale Bush)

Later, we’re introduced to Orsino and his ongoing attempt to woo Olivia despite her pledge to spend the next seven years mourning her late brother. In most productions, Orsino is depicted as a soulful romantic, making him a fitting target for the adoration the disguised Viola comes to feel for him. Here, though, Orsino comes across as a love-struck buffoon, making Viola’s crush seem shallow and inconsequential.

The worst part of all this is that, having played the comedy’s gentler moments for laughs, the actors are forced to up the ante by playing the more-boisterous moments for even bigger laughs. As the show goes on, some cast members over-emote in a style that seems more appropriate for the vaudeville era than the 1980s.

When Olivia falls for the young “man” Viola is impersonating, Frisch turns her into a caricature of a woman in heat. When Olivia’s dictatorial steward, Malvolio (Jesse Massaro), is fooled into thinking he’s the object of his lady’s desires, he shouts his protestations of love so loudly that you’d think he was courting someone in the next county. Then, just in case the odd audience member is still unaware that something funny is supposed to be going on, Toby and his friends take the stage decked out in Ghost Busters paraphernalia.

All this overwhelms the alternately clever and tenderly romantic tale that is Twelfth Night, which could have absorbed the 1980s pop references but can’t survive all the bombast.

“Prithee read i’ thy right wits,” Olivia pleads at one point as Feste is reading a letter out loud and making a mockery of it in the process. You can’t help wishing the director and her cast had taken her words to heart.

Actors’ Theatre will present Twelfth Night through July 28 at the amphitheater in Schiller Park, 1069 Jaeger St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Admission is free; bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.

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Author: Richard Ades

Richard Ades was the arts editor of The Other Paper, a weekly news-and-entertainment publication, from 2008 until it was shut down on Jan. 31, 2013. He also served as TOP's theater critic throughout its 22-year existence.

10 thoughts on “All Shakespearean updates are not created equal”

  1. Personal biases are to be expected from a hack critic. However, I also sense a deeply held rage at work here. I suspect you were a victim of bullying in your youth. Too bad those now non-paid keystrokes do little to quell the pain in your fragile psyche.

    1. Your response is totally inappropriate. If you have a different opinion of the play, then express it, but personal attacks are juvenile.

      1. Appropriateness is in the eye of the beholder. I think I understand what Mel is saying; Richard is like the person who shows up in a war zone once the battle is won and then shoots all the survivors.

  2. Poor Richard…As awkward with his prose and desperate need for relevance as he looks on his scooter.

  3. Wow! To answer the first Mel, no, I wasn’t bullied as a child, but I think I’m making up for it now! “Deeply held rage”? Actually, I hate writing negative reviews, and it’s doubly hard when the subjects include people I’ve long admired, such as director Mandy Fox. But writing them is part of the job, as is receiving occasional brickbats like yours. So thanks for the feedback. (Not to mention the free psychological evaluation!)

    1. The psychological evaluation is on equal scale with your witless, soul-numbing analysis of local theatre. And the “job” you speak of is now nothing more than a simple hobby of vapid hubris.

      1. Personal attacks are symptomatic of those that have little to say, but have a need to be heard. Better would be a logical rebuttal, that is, a comment that would encourage an intellectual discourse. Since you have not presented any evidence that Richard’s evaluation has fault in substance or evaluation, your comment merits little consideration except to note that it falls into a class of discourse common from those with a tendency towards bullying-from-a-distance, a denominator of the anonymous masses that plague the Internet.

  4. Oversimplify much, Laurence? It seem to me the opinions expressed here are just as valid as those put forth by Mr. Ades. As one who knows this critic personally, I would venture to say they are based on close scrutiny and observation much like Richard’s own views. Unfortunately, if history is an indicator, any point by point analysis of his diatribes would result in further retribution for the artists involved. Such are the devices of the real bully on display here. If Poor Richard cannot withstand such scrutiny and honest evaluation perhaps he needs another hobby.

  5. Did any of you commentators who are saying Richard was too harsh on this production actually see it? He is dea right-perfect bullseye, this show was a bad production. I saw it a felt like non of the actors or the director had rad the script or knew what the words their were saying really meant. There were many jokes tacked on to the play script that had nothing to do with the words.
    If you can’t stand an honest opinion, stay home, don’t audition and let other tougher skinned folks get onstage.

  6. Congratulations, Sidney. Not only have you parroted Richard’s review, but you have regurgitated his same tired verbiage about how his detractors must obviously be disgruntled actors. I am a theatre goer and part-time writer, not an actor. May I suggest you and Mr. Ades both get over yourselves.

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