Chicago Shakespeare Company

at the Immediate Theatre

In 1936, a Young Turk named Orson Welles mounted an all-black Macbeth, set in Haiti. In that same period, in England, Tyrone Guthrie was breathing new life into the Old Vic by showing the same irreverence for tradition. Guthrie took flak from critics who considered his Shakespeare bizarre and tricked-up, and Welles fared little better. Audiences, though, went wild.

Today, adaptations, bastardizations, and modern-dress interpretations of Shakespeare are the norm. They can still prove novel and enlightening, but only in the hands of imaginative directors such as Peter Brook and Peter Sellars. The rest is crepe paper. I was neither depressed nor excited by the prospect of seeing a Caribbean Twelfth Night — you never know till you get there. The last Shakespearean adaptation I’d seen was titled Hambo, and it was the sort of experience that had taught me always to take an aisle seat.

The Caribbean setting in this Twelfth Night is more motif than interpretation, and not a very consistent motif at that. The scene design is beautiful, but with its pink courtyard walls and artificial palm trees it might as well be Miami Vice. The costumes are more Mardi Gras than Caribbean; and the music (composed and arranged by Joe Cerqua), although quite lovely, is only vaguely reminiscent of calypso or reggae. Not only that, the cast is white. So, what have you got? Pink, green, and purple pastels — Easter egg colors — splashed on an Elizabethan play that is supposed to take place in ancient Illyria, on the coast of the Adriatic. Don’t ask me why. The press release said that the Caribbean setting is intended to bring out the “corpulent overtones” of the characters. That may or may not be a joke. One can only wonder.

But once Twelfth Night gets under way you realize that it really doesn’t matter and that underneath is standard, serviceable, low-budget Shakespeare. And his comedies all seem to boil down in the end to the same thing: slapstick drunks, women in drag, mistaken identities, multiple marriages, and a couple of white chicks sitting around on a bench talking. What might have been a novel interpretation — the Caribbean connection– is just an ornamental doodad.

Don Renaud’s direction is indistinguishable from what I’ve seen in other small Shakespearean companies scattered about the country. There’s the same emphasis on semivulgar horseplay — the bawdy Bard approach. So that when Malvolio delivers his line, “And some have greatness thrust upon them,” you can be right certain that he delivers Olivia a pelvic thrust. Haw haw. Then there’s the typically unprofessional swordplay: boring, sloppily executed, and dangerously close to the front row. Most pervasive of all (and I’ll never understand this) is the practice of typecasting, rather than casting according to the actors’ talents, or for the chemistry between actors, So, in Twelfth Night, Renaud has done no more or less than the usual. He has simply got the thing onstage, and tried to make it seem new and funny. It’s about what you might expect, or, as Shakespeare subtitled the play, “what you will.”

Aside from the script itself, of course, the enjoyable portions of this show are the incidentals. I’ve mentioned the set design and music, but not the acting. Tom Blanton gives the exceptional performance as Malvolio: nerdish and condescending, greasily obsequious, but with a childlike quality. Very much the teacher’s pet. Although Malvolio’s cross-gartered scene is misdirected for wild physical humor instead of ludicrous incongruity, Blanton nevertheless makes the scene memorable. No small amount of help comes from Ann Gottlieb. Gottlieb is an attractive if not versatile Olivia, which is to say that her characterization is slight but immensely improved upon in moments — confrontations, asides to the audience, etc — when her impulsiveness and humor burst through.

Viola and Sir Toby Belch don’t come off so well. Mary Beth Glasgow (as Viola) has all the verve and passion of a career legal secretary. Viola’s cross-dressing, her impersonation of Cesario, is supposed to be the major gag and titillation in this play, but Glasgow is uniformly androgynous. What’s the point in that? Nor does the equally neuter John Kevin Forsythe (as Orsino, Viola’s lover) heat things up. The sexual tension here amounts to zilch. Christopher Donahue plays a mean steel drum, but his character (Sir Toby Belch) is on one hyperactive level throughout the play. Mostly this consists of laughing at his own jokes. What’s less, he doesn’t even belch.

After the intermission (acts three through five), the play picks up steam. As to why, I’m not sure. I suspect it’s because of Malvolio’s increased role in the play, but also because of Mark Bartosic’s performance as the Clown. In the first two acts, Bartosic isn’t completely insufferable but he’s no gutbuster either. Later in the play, Bartosic does a number of witty vocal impressions, mostly for the hell of it. But his best impression, a fundamentalist minister, is well used in the scene when the Clown visits Malvolio in the guise of Sir Topas, the curate. Bartosic’s nasal exorcism, “Out, hyperbolical fiend! How vexest thou this man!” is as funny today as it was 400 years ago.

What Bartosic does with this fundamentalist minister routine is what everyone producing Shakespeare these days attempts to do — make it relevant. That’s a tall order. Sometimes it seems as if Shakespeare’s characters — royalty, lowlife, and fools — have little to do with our own lives. By forcing the dramatic context into our own day and age, that tall order is only shortly addressed. And by removing the context in which these plays were originally written and performed, much of the meaning and impact is lost. Yet to leave Shakespeare in doublet and hose is to confine him to the museum. This problem can only be solved with vision. You can’t just tack on a Caribbean motif, like pinning a tail somewhere on a donkey, and expect original Shakespeare to come into being. You have to take off the blindfold.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/D. Renar.