In the Prenzie Players’ hugely entertaining production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will, there’s an encounter so heart-stoppingly strong that it might be the single most effective stage moment I’ve witnessed all year.
In it, Count Orsino (Jeff De Leon), achingly in love with the Countess Olivia (the spirited, entrancing Denise Yoder), tries to soothe his spirits with a song performed by the ribald clown Feste (Cait Bodenbender). Sitting next to the count is Viola (Linnea Ridolfi) – in male disguise as his servant, Cesario – who is, herself, falling in love with Orsino. As Feste performs, Viola puts a consoling hand on Orsino’s shoulder, which he grasps with brotherly affection.
But as the song continues, the passion Viola feels for Orsino becomes, in Ridolfi’s eyes, unmistakable, and – to the audience’s surprise – perhaps even reciprocated. Holding onto Viola’s hand just slightly longer than he should, Orsino slowly turns to face her (him), and, with De Leon projecting both confusion and a sort of romantic inevitability, begins to slowly, slowly, caress Viola’s cheek. The pair – ever so tentatively – leans in toward one another. Then the song ends. And the moment has passed.
The intimacy of it is staggering, yet the sequence is truly explosive because of the mixed feelings it generates. In male drag, Ridolfi doesn’t look or sound much like a boy, yet the commitment with which she plays a boy assuages any doubts about the disguise, and she and De Leon perform with an intensity that makes that lean-in feel like the shattering of a taboo. As an audience, we’re both aching for Orsino and Viola to kiss and terrified that they actually will, yet the moment is also exquisitely comic; there are so many levels of farcical and dramatic tension occurring simultaneously that it’s a bit dizzying. (Shakespeare in Love, which usurped Twelfth Night for much of its inspiration, aimed for this effect, too, and didn’t pull it off nearly as well.)
One scene like that – so beautifully-calibrated, so smart about its intended effect – is enough to assure you that you’re in good hands for the evening, and in the Prenzie Players and their Twelfth Night, you’re in very good hands indeed. I’m prone to be skeptical of organizations that tout their innovation and “guerrilla” tactics, but in this production at least, the Prenzie Players’ confidence is absolutely justified; Twelfth Night is a mad, glorious, superbly-performed version of the Bard’s classic.
Set in an indeterminate time period and with few set pieces aside from some benches and a center-stage piano (which will, throughout, be marvelously played by Karl Bodenbender), the show gleefully breaks the fourth wall – at one moment, entering Olivia’s chamber, Viola removes her hat and places it on an audience member’s head – and finds amazing ways to honor Shakespeare’s work and slyly mock it at the same time; the climactic handling of Antonio (a powerfully focused Aaron Sullivan), whose fate is all but ignored in the original text, is a great inside joke that manages to work for everyone. The show’s program lists, as its director, Stephanie Burrough and “the cast,” but I’m wondering if perhaps Ms. Burrough was being overly modest; Twelfth Night certainly feels as if it were helmed with one singular, wildly inspired vision.
And Burrough and her troupe earn bonus points for the venue they’re performing in; with no “house lights” to speak of, the entire production is being produced (at Moline’s historic Montgomery Ward building) in full light accented by the room’s gleaming white walls. To perform two-and-a-half hours of Shakespeare while being able to see the audience as clearly as your fellow actors must take incredible chutzpah, and I applaud the cast for doing it with such ease.
Allow me to applaud a few cast members individually, as well; only space limits prevent me from devoting an entire paragraph to each. As the priggish fool Malvolio, Tracy Skaggs is a brilliant physical comedian – his attempts to force out a smile made me cry with laughter – and his inventive line readings are beyond dry; they should come served with a toothpick and an olive. Anthony Anderson, as Sir Andrew, is a witheringly funny slapstick goober, Cait Bodenbender is a fearless, ingratiating Feste – her soprano in striking contrast to her Kristen Johnston-esque speaking voice – and enough cannot be said about Jeff De Leon’s performance as Orsino; his sterling interpretive skills and vibrant dramatic presence indicate that De Leon is commanding enough to play just about anything.
When you’re reaching for the stars, you’re bound to occasionally feel the strain, and there are a couple of moments in Twelfth Night when the Prenzie Players’ comic inspirations don’t quite pan out; a mid-show sing-along is agreeably goofy but proved, awkwardly, beyond the reach of both cast and audience, and while the decision to use an “audience volunteer” to play Fabian is a clever comment on that character’s late introduction in the play, the joke is abandoned almost as soon as it’s introduced – it’s like an idea for a comedic idea. This, though, is nitpicking. The Prenzie Players’ Twelfth Night is both deeply reverent and hysterically irreverent, and for my money, their next production can’t come soon enough.
For more information on Prenzie Players, visit (http://www.prenzieplayers.com).