Actor’s Repertory Theatre

at the Victory Gardens Theater

The piano, as white as the billowing curtains behind it, rests at the center of the stage. Faith Soloway, her back to the audience, sits at the keyboard and plays the compositions she has written for this production of Twelfth Night, which marks the Chicago debut of the Actor’s Repertory Theatre.

Her position onstage is symbolically perfect, for Soloway is the heart of this show. Her lovely, ingenious jazz score pumps the lifeblood into it, quietly supplying the energy that makes everything work. Without her music, this would be just another plucky assault on Shakespeare by a no-name theater company. With her music, it’s a beguiling interpretation that seems to draw the sense of the play to the surface, and expose the undercurrents that swirl beneath the silly plot.

It may sound audacious, putting Shakespeare’s words to music this way, but Soloway matches her music to the mood of the action so adroitly that she seems to be carrying out the playwright’s orders. And in a way she is. Shakespeare, after all, wrote the lyrics for five songs right into the script, and provided ample opportunities for incidental music. The first line, in fact, demands that somebody play something: “If music be the food of love, play on,” says Orsino, the duke of Illyria.

Soloway, of course, provides the music he requests. She has been improvising at the keyboard ever since the audience started to file in, so her presence onstage seems natural, even though she never pretends to be a character in the play. A few lines later, the duke sings of his unrequited love for the beautiful Olivia, and it becomes clear that this production of Twelfth Night is a dynamic collaboration–book and lyrics by William Shakespeare, music by Faith Soloway.

That short song also helps shape Andrei Hartt’s cartoonish portrayal of Orsino. Hartt overacted so shamelessly in the first few minutes of the show that he looked like a high school student mugging for laughs in front of his classmates. But the short speech that Soloway has set to music puts Hartt’s histrionics in perspective, exposing Orsino as a pompous romantic who likes to wear his heart on his sleeve.

Orsino, of course, is pining away for the beautiful Olivia, who simply doesn’t love him. Viola, who has just lost her twin brother in a shipwreck, comes ashore at Illyria and decides to disguise herself as a man and become the duke’s servant. (Hey, I’m just reporting what happens; don’t blame me if it doesn’t make sense.) Orsino hires Viola, and immediately sends her to Olivia with a message of love, but instead of changing her mind about the duke, Olivia falls in love with Viola, which sets the stage for the confusion and the comedy that follows.

The women who play these two roles provide a solid foundation for director Eric Nightengale to build upon. Both can act, both can recite Shakespeare beautifully, and both can sing. Lia D. Mortensen, who plays Viola, can even play the piano. During one number, she takes over for Soloway in mid-song, providing a graceful, surprising transition to the following scene. As Olivia, Eden Bodnar carries herself with the regal bearing of a beauty who knows she’s beautiful, and who delights in spurning the advances of the love-struck Orsino.

Michael Raimondi justifies the Club Med ambience of the production with his performance as Feste the clown. While his acting is merely functional, the songs he sings as a red-hot lounge singer add sizzle and a touch of humor to the proceedings. Ted I. Rubenstein cleverly portrays Sir Toby Belch as a working-class pub crawler, and David Barnes is wonderfully prissy as the puritanical Malvolio, the steward to Olivia who is deceived into believing she is in love with him. It’s easy for an actor to make fun of Malvolio’s nature, but Barnes goes further. In the later scenes, when Malvolio is teased and humiliated beyond endurance, Barnes brings out a dark, bitter side of his character, and casts an eerie pall over the play’s conclusion.

The only serious defect in this production is Seth Jacobs’s despicable interpretation of Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the foolish suitor to Olivia. Jacobs turns his performance into a shrieking, simpering fag joke. He prances and gallops around the stage, always giggling and shaking his hands (which, of course, are attached to limp wrists). When he stands still, he holds one foot slightly off the floor, like a horse pawing the ground, and when he speaks, he seems to be imitating a prissy little girl. Jacobs shatters the mood whenever he intrudes upon the action. His performance not only seems to be from another production, it also seems to be from another generation, when mockery of effeminate males was considered hilarious.

Jacobs doesn’t sing much, so he can’t taint the music, and that’s fortunate, since it’s the music that holds this production together and sets it apart from the efforts of other upstart theater companies. The people at the Actor’s Repertory Theatre seem to recognize this. In their press packet, there are no pictures, but there is a cassette tape containing the songs and some of the music from the show. They know exactly what’s special about their effort. I don’t miss the pictures. Although the set is attractive, and the costumes cleverly make fun of resort wear, I wouldn’t care if I forgot every visual image. The music, on the other hand, I want to remember, and I’ve been playing the tape over and over.