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Shakespeare with a Twist

Maria Smith | Monday, April 11, 2005

What do you get when you take “Twelfth Night” out of the 16th century and into the 1980s?An Illyria built on rock and roll.In the Not So Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance of Shakespeare’s comedy, Viola, Orsino and Olivia got down to U2, Huey Lewis and the News and other icons of ’80s rock.Senior Elizabeth Grams, who played Feste the fool, had a chance to give some musical renditions of Shakespearean lines that hailed even farther back to the 1970s.It is not uncommon to use gimmicks like this to give the plays by the most beloved playwright of the English language a little bit of a distinctive flair. The ’80s twist was aptly chosen for the audience – Notre Dame party people are almost always glad to hear some good ’80s tunes.And in NSR’s performance, it was indeed the party people who benefited the most from the ’80s spin. In this particular performance of “Twelfth Night,” Shakespeare’s clowns reigned victorious. Sir Toby Belch, played by Brandon McGirr, Air Andrew Aguecheek, played by Emmanuel Zeroudakis, Fabian, played by Marty Schroeder and Maria, played by Meghann Tabor, stole the show from their straight-man counterparts.Joe Garlock gave one of the best performances with his tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the dour Malvolio. The shtick between these five actors was undoubtedly the highlight of the show. The drunken, guitar-loving clowns brought to mind the unmotivated beer-loving high school graduates of “Dazed and Confused” or “Say Anything,” the Belch and his friends were appropriately annoyed when “the man” Malvolio tried to get them down.Unfortunately the musical focus also obscured some themes – several lines were lost to loud music and as amusing as the dance numbers could be, they didn’t always gel with the more serious scenes. Some of Feste’s lines, although well set to their music, were difficult to understand.Virginia Woolf once called Shakespeare one of the few “androgynous” writers, that is, one whose writing is neither distinctively male nor distinctively female. Shakespeare not only had a talent for dynamically portraying both male and female characters, but a fondness for working with both simultaneously. Some of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters appear in his “transvestite comedies,” dressed in the guise of the opposite gender and often wooing characters of their own sex more or less accidentally.NSR has shown a fondness for these transvestite comedies this year. “As You Like It,” the play chosen for first semester, centers around Rosalind, a beautiful heroine who charms all sorts of people in the guise of a young man named Ganymede.The famous love triangle between Viola, Orsino and Olivia in “Twelfth Night” is another case of mistaken identity. Viola dresses as a young man and calls herself Cesario in order to find employment in Orsino’s house, but finds herself falling in love with him. Orsino sends her as a messenger to woo Olivia, who develops a passion for the youth she believes to be Cesario. Therefore, for the majority of the play each is unhappily in unrequited love.The gender-blurring theme was perhaps more effectively developed in the fall performance, with Grams in the role of Rosalind – so many characters fall for the so-called Ganymede that the issue of gender identity is hard to ignore. But the awkward chemistry between Viola, played by Liz Clouse, and Olivia, played by Molly Kealy, was certainly palpable. The union between Viola and Orsino at the end, when Viola’s true identity is revealed, emphasize the importance of a good character which reaches above and beyond the turbulent relations between genders. Both of these plays, and all of these characters, certainly highlight a question about the degree to which gender roles are merely a construction.Some of the fine points of the Shakespeare’s language are almost inevitably lost in college productions and “Twelfth Night” was no exception. The plot was a little bit difficult to follow at the beginning and the details of how Viola ended up dressed as a man in Orsino’s household were certainly not clear. But the difficulty of reading Shakespearean English, let alone performing it, creates a charitable audience and as the play progressed the plot became easy to follow. Grams and Garlock stepped up to the Shakespearean challenge most successfully, but other actors were not far behind.The actors’ big-shoulder power suits and jean jackets were as effective as most costumes seen on the college stage – the reminder that Shakespeare’s plays transcend time and place is always welcome.In the spectrum of the Shakespearan world, “Twelfth Night” is neither Shakespeare’s best play nor NSR’s best performance, but both have more than a few virtues.