If you’re looking for a taste of lighter, comedy fare, Shakespeare by the Sea’s offering up a dose of Twelfth Night — a theatrical outing packed with schemes, and love triangles, and humorous figures (oh my!). Performed by the company twenty-five years ago, the revived comedy comes in, guns ablaze, with director Jesse MacLean pulling out all the stops, including a new focus on queer relationships that the original Twelfth Night somehow left unaddressed. It’s a smart and integral idea — and one that Twelfth Night pulls off…mostly.
As far as performances go, if you’re familiar with the performing talent of SBTS in recent years, the casting choices here are relative no-brainers. Melissa MacGougan stars in the lead role of Viola/Cesario. She plays her part well, but when directed to be the only normal person in a play otherwise full of mostly exaggerated characters, she gets lost in the crowd. This issue rings a bell — such was my beef with her in the titular role of this summer’s family show, Alice in Wonderland. By pitting a subtle MacGougan against the loud, uninhibited Toby Belch (the semi-unstable juggernaut Tom Gordon-Smith) or the aggressively-infatuated Olivia (comedic delight Kathryn MacCormack), you’re not playing to her strengths. Peter Sarty infuses his Sir Andrew with an endearing, simple-hearted stupidity. Garry Williams‘ Feste has the requisite omniscience befitting a Shakespearean “fool.” Dan Bray scores laughs as the notoriously uppity prig, Malvolio. I wanted to give Simon Rainville’s lovesick Orsino a hug. Even Jeremy Hutton elevates his minor role as Antonio with such wounded vulnerability he was an unexpected highpoint of the show. Need I go on? I’m not knocking MacGougan’s acting chops — she’s excelled in past comedic ventures (anyone remember Pinocchio?) — please just give us something more to remember her by.
Directorial missteps aside, the decision to remount Twelfth Night with MacLean’s self-described “queer lens” evokes crucial, tender moments in a play otherwise rife with continuous hilarity, and some relationships succeed more than others. The greatest example of this thoughtfulness is seen between Orsino and Cesario. As Orsino’s infatuation for Olivia fades and his encounters with Cesario become more meaningful, Rainville and MacGougan tap into an emotional vein, delving deeper beyond their preconceived perceptions of sexuality. So much remained unsaid between them: there’s tension, there’s longing, and I ended up wanting more of it. A fumble, however, exists with the treatment of the romance between Hutton’s Antonio and Drew O’Hara’s Sebastian. I’ve seen this play performed before and I want to applaud SBTS for embracing this dynamic. The two start off so close you’re convinced Antonio will die for his love. Yet, when the time comes and Sebastian meets Olivia, this relationship loses its relevance. You’re left thinking that the play didn’t really know how to wrap their story up with a satisfying conclusion. The way Sebastian ultimately shrugs it off, it just kinda feels like none of their history mattered.
I hope it doesn’t come across that I didn’t enjoy this show, because it succeeds as an extremely entertaining affair, one of my favourite Shakespearean comedies. If you’re looking for laughter, zany characters, and great music courtesy of Garry Williams — SBTS knows what it’s doing. In terms of staying true to the different forms love can take, its team deserves recognition for putting a step forward in the right direction, even if there’s still room to grow.
Shakespeare By The Sea‘s presentation of Twelfth Night is on now through Friday, August 31st; tickets are available online or at the show. Matinees and rained-out shows will be at Park Place Theatre, otherwise you’ll find them at the Cambridge Battery, Point Pleasant Park.
All photos credited to Nick Harrison of Shakespeare By The Sea.