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Twelfth Night

Review by Michael Oliver

It is unfortunate that many people in the theatre believe they can improve the plays of Shakespeare through additions of their own devising. Such additions are supposed to be creative, but, in truth, they usually are nothing more than clever, and too often they are merely cute. This certainly was true about the local volunteer production of Twelfth Night that ran for two weeks in July and August at the tennis courts in Victoria Park. And yet there were strong moments in this generally weak production, moments worth remembering.

Intended to be humourous, director Laurie Murphy's innovations added nothing but distractions to the play. The first one was a character called Shakespeare, played by Chris Beck, who sat up in a tennis umpire's chair and offered commentary on the action in the form of smart quotations culled from Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Richard III, and so on. Seldom was the audience amused by this, and rightly so. The other innovation was the constant stream of musical quotations from the hit parade and from the movies played as commentary on the action by a jazz ensemble in the background. So intrusive was this music that at one point, in the desperation of her love, Olivia, played by Sharon Eyster, forsook the script and started wailing Hopelessly Devoted To You. The audience did not know what to make of this, and rightly so. Behind such innovations seemed to be the sad belief that Shakespeare's plays must be related to pop culture to be understood today.

Another problem with direction was the way the players spoke and acted. Shakespeare's language is poetic conversation. For the most part, what the players under Murphy's guidance spoke was neither poetry nor conversation, but a kind of ranting. Lennie MacPherson as Orsino is a case in point. He started off the play by shouting, "If music be the food of love, play on!"—and then he kept on shouting, even later to Caesario/Viola in his fondness, even though his character is melancholic, not maniacal. The players overacted too, with much exaggerated posturing and gesturing, as if the characters were all no more than egocentric pranksters like Sir Toby Belch (played here by Clive Keen, adequately—though it would have been impossible to fail at foolery in this production). Neither of the heroines fared well. Gill Mahen as Viola spoke too low and fast, submerging all the poetry inherent in her lines, while Sharon Eyster as Olivia spoke too excitedly and overplayed love's mad desire.

Nonetheless, some instances of unpretentious acting—as so often is the case—invigorated this production. Graham Putnam as Antonio spoke recognizable blank verse and still conveyed a sense of strong emotion. Nancy McLure as Maria spoke with lively eloquence and moved with easy grace. Josh Weale portrayed the foolish knight Sir Andrew Aguecheek with flourishes of comic wit. And Rex McCarville as Malvolio—despite a generally hyperactive manner—managed to deliver both the humour and the pathos that this role requires.

Special mention must be made of Joey Weale who played Sebastian the way that Shakespeare's characters should always be portrayed—with speech and gestures that are natural and subtle, heightened by an unobtrusive artfulness. As Touchstone in UPEI's spring production of As You Like It, Weale expressed both cynicism and sincerity, and here he played the simple virtue of his character without a trace of phoniness. Weale needs the opportunity to play Bottom, even Hamlet or Iago. Maybe in the future this will hapen.

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