A Lot That Is Great as Twelfth Night Plays On

I was incredibly impressed last night at The Sacred Heart School of Halifax’s Drama Club’s production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which plays at the school’s Little Theatre (5820 Spring Garden Road) until November 17th. These young actors between grades eight and twelve show a deep insight and mastery of Shakespeare’s language that surpasses some adult performances that I have seen.

Twelfth Night is a comedy that hinges on mistaken identity. Twins Viola and Sebastian are shipwrecked separately in Illyria, both believing the other to be dead. Viola disguises herself as a boy, Cesario, so she can make her own way in the world as a page to Count Orsino. Orsino is trying in vain to woo the Lady Olivia and elicits the service of Cesario to deliver his unrequited messages of love to her, only to have Olivia fall in love with the young “boy” as Viola develops feelings of her own for Orsino. When Sebastian arrives on the scene matters become even more complicated, involving duels with drunken aristocrats and a subplot centering on the humiliation of Olivia’s self righteous and Puritanical head servant Malvolio.

There are some fantastic performances in this production with some refreshing interpretations of characters at play here. Jake Marchand plays Duke Orsino and he is riveting to watch. He captures the Duke’s status with a perfect mixture of affable charm and lofty supremacy. He is countered beautifully by Talah Al-Sharkawi’s regal Olivia whose frank dismissal of him is grounded in a haughty pride, which makes her transformation into the wooer of Cesario even more interesting. Anna Ferguson gives Viola a distinct strength of character which is still more uncommon than it should be in productions of Shakespeare, where girls tend to be played as more submissive and naive. I particularly loved how Ferguson characterized Viola as thinking that Olivia’s love for “Cesario” (and the intensity of Olivia’s fervor) was a fun mixture of hilarious and insane. One of the benefits of casting Twelfth Night with younger actors is that Viola and Sebastian can actually look like twins and be far more convincingly mistaken for one another, as is the case here. Torsten Sinclair is particularly fantastic at capturing Sebastian’s ardent confusion throughout the latter part of the Second Act. I also found his very subdued and introspective characterization very interesting as it suggested that he was a little lost and emotionally repressed without his sister. I did think that both Ferguson and Sinclair could have been a little more joyful in their reunion at the end of the play, but both capture the sense of loss of their twin very convincingly.

One of the most challenging aspects of Twelfth Night is the Elizabethan comedy inherent to the scenes between Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Feste the Fool. I would argue that this type of comedy, which is very specific to its own time and place, is one aspect of Shakespeare’s plays that cannot be appreciated in the same way by contemporary audiences as their Elizabethan counterparts, so it puts a lot of pressure on the actors to be able to clearly convey the essence of the jokes through vocal emphasis and physical comedy. Mitchell Pate (Toby), Michael MacGregor (Andrew) and Alexander Jackson (Feste) do a great job bringing out the comedy in these scenes and effectively translating their lines so that they can be understood in a comedic context. Jackson, who is puckish and perpetually pleased with himself is a delight as Feste, and he is especially clear with pushing the punch lines of his jokes. He also has a beautiful singing voice which is used very effectively throughout. I loved how Eliéanór O’Halloran, as trickster mastermind Maria, deals with the idiocy of this trio, like an exasperated mother with toddlers, and she also has a delicious lust for maliciousness toward Malvolio, which sparks the subplot nicely. Colyer Roil gives an especially polished performance as the much maligned Malvolio; his comic timing is precise and he is never afraid to go big with his choices and to push his character to the extremes of his ridiculousness, which works perfectly in this context.

Director Andrew Aven Gillis has given this production a concept in having the characters dressed in costumes from throughout the ages, to suggest the timelessness of music and perhaps also the enduring nature of Shakespeare and this particular tale. I loved that Orsino was dressed in contemporary clothing and that he was a DJ, which allowed Marchand to give him a hipster edge that maybe wouldn’t have come across as well if he had been wearing Elizabethan tights. The rest of the costumes are a little vaguer, which means that while it is clear that Marchand lives in the present day, all the other characters are harder to pin down, seeming to exist somewhere between Shakespeare’s death and Queen Victoria’s birth. For this reason it becomes unclear how the other characters are interacting with the time period they are dressed in and how this influences their interactions with people in different time periods than their own. This in no way detracts from the play, but is something that I think could be explored more fully to create something quite fascinating.

The works of William Shakespeare are often young people’s entrance into the World of Theatre, which can be problematic at times because they are so much more challenging than more contemporary plays. Theatre artists often worry that if young people’s connotation with Shakespeare is writing English essays or seeing self-important, highly affected productions that are very long and hard to understand that they will assume that all theatre is old fashioned, boring and irrelevant to the 21st Century (which couldn’t be further from the truth!) It is productions like this one at Sacred Heart School that make the best introductions to Shakespeare: fun, playful, funny and communicated very clearly and with a contemporary sensibility so that the audience can connect with it. There were some very young students in the audience who not only sat captivated throughout, but also seemed to have followed the basic storyline as well. So, thanks to Sacred Heart for so beautifully fostering a love of Shakespeare in the next generation!

Twelfth Night plays at the Sacred Heart School Little Theatre (5820 Spring Garden Road) tonight, November 17, 2012 at 7:30pm. Tickets are available at the door or by calling 902.422.4459 and they are $8.00 for Adults and Students and $5.00 for Elementary School Students. For more information visit this website

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