Like a few dozen other optimistic souls, I attended Saturday's Genesius Guild production of Twelfth Night hoping that the threatened thunderstorms would bypass the Quad Cities, or at least Rock Island's Lincoln Park, for three hours or so. Alas, Shakespeare's game was called on account of rain (and some major lightning) at roughly 8:30 p.m., so those of us who were willing and able were invited to return to see the rest of the show, and its opening half-hour again, on Sunday.
Well, I was able. But the willing part, I'll admit: not so much. Perhaps it was opening-night jitters; perhaps it was fear of slipping on Lincoln Park's getting-wetter-by-the-second stage; perhaps it was the conviction that the show would be canceled anyway so there was little point in trying. But whatever the reason, the actors, at the start of Saturday's presentation, felt so disconnected from their material that I never felt connected to it, either.
As with most slapsticks and mistaken-identity comedies - and this Bard outing is both - it takes a while to set up all of Twelfth Night's intricate puzzle pieces before there can be any real payoffs, so a dry and mostly laugh-less introductory half-hour isn't necessarily a surprise. Yet trapped in generally static configurations, and prone to vacant expressions when not talking, director Bryan Woods' cast members seemed alternately antsy and lethargic, as if there was somewhere else (maybe indoors?) they either preferred or needed to be. Even performers who are normally live wires on stage, such as Michael Callahan and Calvin Vo, appeared rather defeated by the proceedings, and consequently, little of what anyone said made either narrative or emotional sense.
But what a difference a day can make. Because while it still took a perhaps-undue amount of time for the performers to seem genuinely comfortable, Sunday's presentation wound up being enjoyable, sometimes really enjoyable, and even its first 30 minutes were a notable improvement on the previous night's. The production may only approach true greatness on a few occasions, but even a not-bad Twelfth Night is a pretty good Twelfth Night, and Genesius Guild's latest is a pretty good Twelfth Night.
During executive director Doug Tschopp's introductory remarks on Sunday, he mentioned that several frequent Guild patrons, when told of the show's placement on the 2014 schedule, told him it was their absolute favorite Shakespeare play. In terms of the author's comedies, it's mine, too, so it's entirely possible that I'm just overly sensitive about elements of Woods' production that didn't quite gel for me. I would've preferred, for instance, more pained heartache from Viola (Irene Herzig) after the young woman was shipwrecked and her twin brother Sebastian (Justin Grubbs) presumed dead, and a bit less aimless staggering from Callahan's drunkard Sir Toby Belch, whose movements didn't have the comic force of his readings.
I'd have liked more visible confusion from Orsino (Tyler Henning) as he waxed poetic about his beloved Olivia (Cayte McClanathan) while realizing he was also, perhaps, falling for a "man," when Viola was in drag as the servant Cesario. I wish Woods hadn't so frequently guided his performers to chorus-line positioning that kept them from addressing one another directly, making this Shakespeare outing more closely resemble a masked Greek tragedy. And I really wish some of those performers didn't visibly check out whenever they weren't required to speak. (Note to those who tended to drop character after walking through the center-stage trellises on their way to the exits: We could still see you.)
Yet Woods' offering is teeming with fine, inventive things, many of them of his own invention. For example, I'm reasonably sure that the "12 Days of Christmas" tune doesn't appear anywhere in Shakespeare's original text. But I wouldn't have missed its inclusion here for anything, with Belch, Calvin Vo's Feste, Alex Brown's Andrew Aguecheek, and Joey Curtiss' Fabian blaring an inebriated rendition of the song until they got tripped up by "10 lords a leaping," at which point they simultaneously skipped ahead to "Fi-i-ive go-o-old ri-i-ings!" (Generally speaking, the show's sots grew more endearing as the play progressed.)
Vo, whose bright, clear tenor voice was showcased on a number of less bombastic occasions, was cheery and sprightly throughout, especially when Feste disguised himself as an elderly curate, and left the scene with an unscripted echo effect ("Fare thee well ... ! Fare thee well ... ! Fare thee well ... "). Meanwhile, one added splash of physical comedy made me laugh out loud for a full three seconds, when Viola and Aguecheek - both terrified to duel - briefly touched epees, and the dainty metallic "Cling!" made Viola shriek, drop her foil, and run away.
Many of the production's best bits, however, were right there to be found, and were found, within the context of the script. McClanathan delivered an especially lovely moment when Olivia listened to Cesario relate Orsino's affections, and, growing more and more flushed - and more and more taken by the messenger - took the briefest of pauses before muttering, "Oh, sir!" Orsino himself was never more touching than when Henning became visibly moved by Feste's tender singing and the thought of faraway love. (Henning is also costumed in a striking blend of black, silver, and blood red - the handsomest outfit, among much competition, courtesy of designer Ellen Dixon.) And Herzig, by the show's end, emerged as a wonderfully charming, spirited, and empathetic lead, legitimately flummoxed in Viola's romantic travails and infectiously, and deservedly, elated in her reunion with the equally beaming Grubbs.
Earlier, I neglected to mention one other possible explanation for Saturday's underwhelming opening half-hour: Despite the clouds, it was still technically daylight, and as anyone who has frequented outdoor theatre knows, actors come most fully to life when it's dark. So it was only a slight surprise - and a happy one - to see nearly all of Twelfth Night's performers become more confident as the night went on, with Mollie Schmelzer's Maria getting an increasingly giddy charge from her dirty tricks, Curtiss delivering fleeter and more offhandedly riotous readings, and Brown willing to let his Aguecheek grow into a grade-A dimwit. (The character's grinning vacuousness caught me off-guard several times, and Brown elicited an unexpected cackle when Aguecheek heard the words "foolish knight" and leaped to his feet shouting, "That's me!")
Callahan, with his amusing tendency to substitute "ah" for "er" at the ends of words - with "brother" becoming "brothah" and the like - brings Belch to continually higher, and more unrestrained, states of drunken vocal exuberance. (When he greeted Feste with "WELCOME, ASS!!!", I was pretty sure I heard a few Lincoln Park birds immediately fly south.) As for Michael Carron, he's a terrific Malvolio from beginning to end, his grim-faced dyspepsia slowly - and from the looks of it, painfully - morphing into his best imitation of joyfulness; Malvolio's tortured attempt at a simple smile could, for the delightful Carron, be one act's entertainment all by itself. Thankfully, in Genesius Guild's latest, it doesn't have to be. I'll admit that Sunday's performance (and certainly Saturday's performance) started out rocky. By its curtain call, though, Twelfth Night had made such a comeback that it was practically Rocky.
Twelfth Night runs at Lincoln Park (11th Avenue and 38th Street, Rock Island) through July 20, donations to the free performances are encouraged, and more information is available by visiting Genesius.org.