As the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival's old-Hollywood take on Twelfth Night begins, the clown Feste (Andrew Shulman) seats himself in front of a projection screen and reads an RKO-derived set of opening credits. The names of the play's stars and director Patrick Flick flash by, in a tone-setting show of black-and-white cheek. The action then turns live, if no less melodramatic. Strobe lights simulate a submarine attack, the survivors wash up on shore beneath a hillside bearing the Tinseltown legend "Illyria" … and the choice is yours to either go with it or not.
Go with it. A rare easy swallow in the increasingly problematic category of Bardian updates, OSF's Twelfth Night makes re-envisioning Shakespeare seem like the most natural thing in the world. Perhaps it's that canny multimedia intro, which fixes the action in a world that's neither the playwright's Illyria nor the actual Hollywood of the 1930s, but some dreamlike hybrid of the two. Maybe it's the original music by Michael Andrew a song cycle perfect in its plaintive minstrelsy. Most likely, it's the privilege of seeing a supremely talented cast guided to recreate the best of Shakespeare and DeMille without lapsing into a disrespectful caricature of either source.
Director Flick has superimposed celluloid iconography onto the text so smoothly and successfully that you may be too caught up in the story to keep a full running tally of the references. As the stranded Viola (Christine Whitley) dons seaman's garb to serve as love's messenger (and eventually its sitting duck), she encounters a cast of supporting characters that just happen to be plucked straight from a Depression-era matinee. Feste is a Buster Keaton-type fool in both aspect and attire, while the roguish knight Sir Toby Belch (Michael Daly) owes a tippling debt to W.C. Fields. Anne Hering's conniving chamber gal, Maria, typifies Flick's adaptive approach: She's blond and Brooklyn-brassy but never over the top. Screeching is out of the question.
That's good news when it comes to the casting of Mindy Anders, a gifted actress whose OSF roles have too often required her to emulate an air-raid siren. Mourning becomes her in her role as Olivia, she of the deceased brother and the growing lust for secret drag king Viola. From Anders' first entrance, she strikes a willowy, impossibly tall figure one would swear she's wearing stilts beneath her black gown yet that quality of nearly alien remove is played for gentle pathos and affectionate humor, rather than cheap laughs.
It's slower warming up to Whitley, whose Viola tends toward monotonous overstatement. Vocally at least, she's playing to a tier of seats the Margeson simply doesn't have. The actress makes a better showing in Act Two, by which time our good will has been secured by some unbelievably skillful physical comedy. Actors Brandon Roberts (as an ostrich-like Sir Andrew Aguecheek) and Michael Gill (the revenge-minded servant Fabian) take part in a stalking scene that has them (briefly) contorting their bodies into nearly horizontal shapes that would give the finest chiropractor pause. Best of all is an unforgettable grace note in which Olivia's sourpuss of a steward, Malvolio (Eric Zivot), is called upon to feign a smile. The simple act of putting on a happy face requires a supreme physical effort that begins in his feet and works its way up his body slowly and with pronounced discomfort. I can't think of an actor working today who is in more obvious control of his every extremity.
Control should be the watchword for this production, which portends good things indeed for OSF's latest season. The show is Shakespeare as it should be: matching its author in its sense of adventuresome play, but not stooping to suggest that the old man needs endless jolts of joy-buzzer histrionics to remain relevant. I believe the word they used to use for it is "boffo." email@example.com
Through Oct. 9
Lowndes Shakespeare Center
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.