The tenth season of the Great River Shakespeare Festival opened in Winona on Friday night with a rollicking “Twelfth Night.” The production is directed by Paul Barnes, who will be stepping down from his 10-year stint as producing director, as well as founder, of GRSF. It did not disappoint those in the audience who have come to expect a laugh-out-loud, energetic comedy from Barnes, full of music and surprises.
Twelfth Night is the night before the feast of the Epiphany in the Christian religion. You’ve heard the song (too many times?) “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” about those days between Christmas and January 6. It was on the Epiphany that the Christ was revealed to the world — the Magi.
This play is full of epiphanies. It begins with Sebastian (Jamie Dufault) and Viola (Tarah Flanagan), twin brother and sister, becoming separated after their ship goes down at sea. Each thinks the other is dead. Viola, now a woman alone, disguises herself as a man — a very delicate man, to be sure. She secures a position in the household of Duke Orsino (Corey Allen) in Illyria, an ancient nation on the Adriatic Sea.
While in the service of Orsino, Viola is sent to woo for him the fair Countess Olivia (Stephanie Lambourn). Olivia, rather than falling for Orsino, falls for his servant, the disguised Viola, much to Viola’s consternation. Much hilarity ensues, involving Olivia’s drink-sodden uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Michael Fitzpatrick), his equally inebriated friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Chris Mixon), who is also attempting to woo Olivia, her clown, Feste (Jonathan Gillard Daly), her mischievous gentlewoman Maria (Laura Jacobs), and her steward, the bad-tempered Malvolio (Christopher Gerson), not to mention Olivia herself, who quite loses herself in her passion.
Suddenly, Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, surfaces in Illyria, having also been saved from the wreck. This leads to great fun with mistaken identity, the poignant reunion of the twins, and the revelation to Orsino and Olivia of who Viola really is. There is, of course, a happy ending, à la Shakespeare, involving three weddings.
The stage is the same round platform that is the GRSF trademark. The set, as in all GRSF productions, is spare, but evocative. In the background, a huge, pleated, translucent curtain swoops across the entire stage. In front of the curtain, graceful arches soar, dotted with lights. A balustrade curves toward the front of the stage, at the end of which is a decorated Christmas tree.
The tree, the presents, and the pots of bright red flowers that dot the stage (and which serve to heighten the physical comedy in a number of scenes) set our Twelfth Night scene.
I was fortunate to attend the play with newcomers to the festival. A group of members of the Winona Senior High School Class of 1964 came to Winona to attend. It was interesting to hear their reactions.
One man said, “Now I know why they said ‘no ruffs, no cuffs!’” His daughter makes costumes for Renaissance Festival actors, and he had expected the GRSF costumes to be something like that.
However, the costumes for this production of “Twelfth Night” were reminiscent of the 1890s. The women wore long skirts with slight bustles, and the men, three-piece suits. The costumes must allow for the ever-present physical comedy (think a combination of the Three Stooges and Chevy Chase) in a Paul Barnes production. It is easy to see why GRSF actors can be seen running on the bike path or working out at the Y. They have to be in great physical condition. I have heard that Chubby Checker lost 30 pounds a year performing his song “The Twist.” I would love to know how much a GRSF actor loses in one performance!
Another friend remarked on the incredible number of songs in the show — “almost a musical!” That is another Barnes trademark; from the beginning, GRSF has employed composers for Barnes’ comedies, as the plays don’t come with sheet music. “Twelfth Night,” among all of Shakespeare’s comedies, includes more songs than any of this others. This production adds to Shakespeare’s songs with Christmas carols of the period, and a beautiful Christina Rossetti poem set to music by Jack Forbes Wilson and sung by Doug Scholz-Carlson. Audiences are familiar with the work of Scholz-Carlson, who has a beautiful tenor voice, but this production also includes wonderful songs sung beautifully by Daly and a talented ensemble.
It is easy, when remembering a GRSF production, to forget about lights, sound, props and such, because they are so naturally and seamlessly accomplished. I especially loved the storm at sea, and the shot heard ‘round the Christmas tree.
It is hard to convince people that a Shakespeare comedy can be really, really funny. My seat mate remarked that there must have been a lot of ad libbing. But Barnes is faithful to the book, while adding a lot of funny business that the reader of the text wouldn’t necessarily envision. That’s the genius of the stage, though, to breathe life into the words on the page.
In the early years of seeing GRSF productions, I was tempted to highlight one or two actors who seemed to carry the show. No longer. The multi-talented professional actors of GRSF have been working together so long now, that they are a true ensemble cast. They play off each other skillfully; their timing is impeccable. They bring to life (and into the twenty-first century) the language of Shakespeare that for so many of us was impenetrable in high school.
The audience laughed with delight when Olivia spoke the lines:
‘What is your parentage?’
‘Above my fortunes, yet my state is well:
I am a gentleman.’ I’ll be sworn thou art;
Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions and spirit,
Do give thee five-fold blazon: not too fast:
We knew what Olivia was saying is “OMG! What an idiot I am. I can’t believe I asked him that! That guy is HOT!”
This is accessible Shakespeare performed by a stellar cast. There’s laughter, music, and even sentimentality. (My seatmate cried a little at the end.) To miss this gem is a sin. While Barnes will return next year to direct “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” there is no guarantee that he will be back perpetually. It’s been ten years, now; its about time to get in on the next ten years of great theater and uproarious comedy.