It was Dania who had convinced the others to sit in the front row. Gwen typically preferred at least a row of distance between herself and the action, especially in a blackbox as small as the McKaw. But Dania was insistent.
“They wouldn’t put chairs out if they didn’t want people sitting there,” she said, excitedly bounding to the chairs just by the edge of the stage. “Come on, Gwen.”
Eleanor, impartial, followed Dania, and so Gwen tagged along. It meant she had to crane her neck upwards to see Olivia, when Chelsee Carter held court from her chair on the platform. But for most of the action of the play, the actors remained in the sweet spot at center stage.
During the final scene, Eleanor, who had thoroughly enjoyed herself, turned to catch Gwen’s eye, to be certain that she was also having a good time. What she saw was not a brimming smile – nothing to fear there, Gwen had a notorious poker face – but rather an intense concentration past the reuniting twins.
Eleanor followed that gaze across the space to Antonio, played by Brandi Brown, who stood by the door frame and watched the happy couples exchange their vows. Antonio – who had been arrested by two tall men earlier in the play, made to genuflect before Ty Fanning’s endearingly pathetic Orsino, and now stood under implied imprisonment as the happy scene rode along.
Eleanor silently wondered what made Gwen focus so intently on Brown, as she watched the scene unfold. During Feste’s final song, Eleanor briefly caught a glimpse of Orsino embracing her, an implied end to her sentencing. Well, she thought, that’s good, at least.
– – – – –
“But I don’t get why the set was made of broken house parts.”
“It’s New Orleans post-Katrina,” Gwen explained, as the trio walked away. “That’s still what parts of the city look like, ramshackle wood and peeling paint. Not to mention, one could read it as the pieces of the ship that Viola and Sebastian were on when they crashed in Illyria.”
“I thought she mentioned something about the setting in the director’s note,” Eleanor said, holding out the leaflet she’d been handed. “Right here: ‘The city of New Orleans embodies some of the best qualities of our main characters; Olivia’s resilience, Toby’s vibrancy, Feste’s musicality…'”
“Yes, yes, all that,” Gwen said. “A fine concept to set a play that’s mostly character driven anyway. You could set Twelfth Night in any location that’s foreign to Viola and Sebastian.”
“Well, I liked it,” Dania said adamantly. “I thought it was fun.”
“I did too,” Eleanor said. “I totally didn’t have that gap at the beginning where I had to figure out what was going on, too. Where I have to decode the language. I got it right away.”
“The show was entirely driven by the characters,” Gwen said. “By their interactions and motivations. The director did a fine job of justifying all the absurd lengths that characters go to. There wasn’t much in the plot that felt wildly contrived – and for a Shakespeare comedy, that’s a minor miracle.”
“Well, maybe,” Dania said. “The whole, ‘I saw you flirting with another dude so now I’m challenging that dude to a sword fight’ plot hole is a plot hole.”
“Well, no getting around that one,” Eleanor mused. “Though about that, I kind of loved the buildup of the huge fight, and then when Andrew thinks Sebastian is Viola, charges at him, and Sebastian just decks him immediately…”
“Because Sebastian is a trained soldier!” Gwen added. “So naturally he would know how to fight.”
“It’s just great, the way he twirls that umbrella around, and the whole audience is like, ‘oh, man, this got real, real quick.'”
“Good clown trios, when you have them, make or break Twelfth Night,” Gwen said. “I was initially a little hesitant about a huge age and energy difference between Toby and Andrew, but they made it really work. Their Toby was a riot.”
“She’s my favorite,” Dania said. “I could watch a whole other show with just her, and the beard guy, and girl with the pretty dress ––”
“…and the clown with the ukulele,” Dania said. “Why do Shakespeare clowns always have ukuleles today?”
“I suppose it’s the instrument most actors can play when their résumé says ‘I can play an instrument,'” Gwen chided. “But truly, Julia Germeroth did a fine job. It’s so easy for Feste to feel annoying or incidental, but here you understand why she’s actually there.”
“Eh,” Eleanor said. “I don’t know about that. I mean, I remember the other time I’ve seen the show. It always feels a little like everyone just kind of exists in this town to run into each other. Like, Malvolio and Feste as employees, or servants, of Olivia never really comes across.”
“Olivia as royalty did get a bit lost here,” Gwen said. “They went more for a ‘powerful by reputation’ angle, rather than a ‘popular by birthright’ one.”
“Is she supposed to be a queen?” Dania said. “I thought she was just the one people liked.”
“That’s what I’m saying,” Gwen repeated. “In the play, she’s a Countess. Here, she’s someone very respected, regardless of her position.”
“I’ll definitely add,” Eleanor interrupted. “I ship her and Cesario way more than I ship her and Sebastian.”
“Yeah, dude just wanders in, get seduced,” Dania added. “Gets married out of nowhere. Who is this guy?”
“And I also ship Cesario and Olivia way, way more than I ship Viola and Orsino.”
Gwen laughed. “Why’s that?”
“Because Orsino’s a tool!” Eleanor exclaimed, not caring who heard as they walked. “Lounging about all emo with his record player, trying not to be gay for his manservant.”
“He’s so gay for Viola as a man,” Dania agreed. “Ten to one, he’s going to call her ‘Cesario’ during sex.”
“Queer interpretations of the play are everywhere,” Gwen said. “I’m surprised they played most of it straight.”
“Well, don’t Dress Lady and Toby get married at the end?” Eleanor asked. “I thought I heard one line to that end tucked in there.”
“In the script they do, but I assumed that would be cut,” Gwen said. “Did they keep that line?”
“I wasn’t paying attention,” Dania said. “I was focused on Malvolio getting chewed out for his letter.”
“I was focusing on Antonio,” Gwen said.
Eleanor’s head turned slightly. “What about Antonio?” she said, as casually as possible.
“It was an interesting choice…” Gwen began, before halting. Did she want to go down this road? Then again, it was inevitable.
“If you’re going to cast one role in Twelfth Night with a person of color,” Gwen said. She selected her words carefully: “Antonio is an interesting choice.”
“Oh, what, because she gets arrested by tall white dudes halfway through?” Dania asked, her smile fading. “Yeah, I caught that. Killed my comedy high right there.”
“I’m almost certain that was intentional,” Gwen defended. “Almost. There was a very deliberate choice to keep Antonio standing there watching this happy ending but not being a part of it. There’s the beginning of a discussion in that. Hell, it’s set in New Orleans post-Katrina. There’s racial dialogue to be had.”
“Well, sure,” Dania said. “But did it have to be in the middle of a comedy? It felt like a tone shift.”
“That’s what I liked about it.”
“Well, that’s what I didn’t like about it,” Dania countered. “You have all this fun romance, and then out of nowhere this character we’ve only seen once before gets arrested and the play just stops. Like, what?”
“Well, is that a script problem?” Eleanor asked. “Would Antonio’s arrest be a problem even if he were a different actor?”
“I don’t know,” Dania said. “It’s Shakespeare, right? Can’t you just cut stuff out?”
“Which is why I feel it’s got to be deliberate,” Gwen continued. “Perhaps the tonal dissonance makes you more upset by it.”
“Well anyway, I wasn’t watching Antonio in the final scene,” Dania moved on. “I was watching Tall McGlasses get insulted by Olivia and Orsino. Seriously, Viola, you deserve better than that guy.”
“Also, speaking of Malvolio,” Eleanor jumped in, “what happened in the ending?”
Eleanor was suddenly accosted by Dania’s emphatic interpretation of director Anna Troy’s ambiguous staging.
“Well, it’s a possibility,” Eleanor said.
“Perhaps the intent was to leave it up to interpretation?” Gwen suggested.
“I mean, you don’t think I’m going to make my own version of what happened?” Dania said. “And you don’t think I’m going to pick the darkest possible interpretation?”
“I think you are,” Gwen said. “But there’s an art to not outright saying that. I personally think the sound design gave away the real answer to what was happening.”
“What was the sound design?”
Gwen described what she had heard. Even as she spoke it, it seemed like a bit of a stretch – but the unmistakable departure of mirth from Feste’s face during the play’s final moments demanded interpretation.
“Is that it?” Eleanor raised an eyebrow.
“Your guess is as good as mine, I suppose,” Gwen shrugged.
“Anyway, I still thought it was pretty good,” Dania concluded. “Funny, fast, easy to understand. Have you seen their stuff before, Gwen?”
“No, this is their very first show,” Gwen said. She pointed to the bottom of the director’s note, where Troy noted that the play’s message about the price of love and loss was “beyond fitting for our first production.”
“Dope,” Dania smiled. “Hope they do more stuff soon.”
“These storefronts,” Eleanor observed as they walked. “They pop up all over the place, new ones are everywhere.”
“When people have stories to tell,” Gwen explained. “They find a method.”
Image Credit: Trainman Photography