If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On

alexis milligan

One of the most inspiring things about growing up in the theatre community of Halifax is the wide array of incredibly talented, fiercely strong and exceptionally smart women who work within it. In 2006 some of Nova Scotia’s most powerful women in the theatre joined forces and created an incredible company called LunaSea, whose mandate is “to produce plays of artistic merit which highlight the contributions and talents of women to theatre, and in so doing, to mentor young artists.” Their all-female production of Twelfth Night, playing at the Cathedral Church of All Saints on Martello Street in Halifax until December 23rd, 2009, is a must-see for this holiday season.

Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s comedy which was first produced on February 2nd, 1602, at Candlemas, the official end to Christmastide in the year’s calendar, is associated strongly with the Christmas season because its title refers to the festivities marking the end of Christmas and the changing of the year. The play hinges on the mistaken identity that ensues when twins, Viola and Sebastian, are shipwrecked and separated on the coast of Illyria, and Viola disguises herself as a young boy, Cesario, and becomes a page for the Duke Orsino. This play would have been a particularly hilarious masquerading romp in its initial productions, of course, because all the roles would have been played by men and boys. LunaSea’s production captures this spirit of frivolity perfectly because all the roles are played by women.

This play is filled with fun and laughter and strikes the perfect balance between honouring both the comedy’s exuberance and Shakespeare’s text. Director Mary-Colin Chisholm makes good use of the beautiful Church space, with actors coming into the audience, and weaves, to haunting effect, traditional Christmas Carols into the transitions between scenes which helps to root this story in the spirit of the season. When the company sings together in a capella harmony, especially within the acoustics of the Cathedral, it is absolutely gorgeous.

This play works so well because it has been cast with such precision. Aislin Flynn, the youngest in the cast, as Fabian, speaks her text with remarkable clarity and has a shining moment where she sings with blithe gusto showing off her lovely voice. Keelin Jack is particularly skilled at exuding boyish charm and plays Antonio with such earnest love for Sebastian that it is heart wrenching to watch when, thinking he has been betrayed, the wind is knocked out of him. Alexis Milligan combines good nature and trickery as the scheming Maria, who takes the whole audience along with her as she conspires to embarrass the pompous Puritan Malvolio. Francine Deschepper is dignified and charismatic as Sebastian and she and Amy Reitsma’s Viola could genuinely be mistaken for relations, which adds an element of realism to the plot that is not always present in Shakespearean comedies.

Scholars and thespians alike are divided in opinion about whether William Shakespeare’s texts have inherent feminist sensibilities. It is clear that in Twelfth Night, a play about role reversal where all the parts were played by men, the strength exhibited by his female characters may be rooted in the tradition of the Feast of Fools. Yet, in this production a character such as Stacy Smith’s resolute Lady Olivia (the “object” of Count Orsino’s affection) and Amy Reitsma’s fiercely brave Viola is empowering to see. Smith is commanding and powerful as Olivia and she and Reitsma sing the most beautiful song with one lyric perhaps ever written. It has been a long time since I have heard Stacy Smith sing; I had forgotten how rich and warm her voice is. Beautiful.

Mary-Colin Chisholm is delightful as the playful clown, Feste, with a distinct Groucho Marx flair that embraces the silliness and absurdity in everything. Geneviève Steele is hilarious as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the silly squire who also seeks Olivia’s hand. She fills every nook and cranny of her time on stage with pure, inspired comedy. Amy Reitsma gives a beautiful performance as Viola showing absolute command of Shakespeare’s language and filling her character with endearing grace and natural comic timing, especially in her revelations. Her singing voice is also especially lovely. Martha Irving is incredible as Sir Toby Belch, fun-loving uncle to Olivia, who in Irving’s deft hands was surely an ancestor of Johnny Depp’s beloved Jack Sparrow. But Twelfth Night would not be Twelfth Night without the yellow cross-gartered fanatical Malvolio, played to such perfection by Vanessa Walton-Bone. She is Alan Rickman’s Snape meets Walt Disney’s Frodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame to the most hilarious effect. I guarantee Walton-Bone can shake the snow from even the most Grinchiest of hearts.

It has been said that dying is easy; comedy is hard, but here in the Cathedral Church of All Saints, in a room filled with those who have surely achieved greatness, it seems as though it is the easiest feat of all.

Twelfth Night plays at the Cathedral Church of All Saints (1330 Martello Street, Halifax) until December 23rd, 2009. 7:30pm. December 19th Matinee at 2:00pm. No show: Sunday, December 20th. Admission: $20.00. $15.00 students/artists. Seniors rates/ Group rates available. For more information please call 902.454.6367 or email info@lunaseatheatre.ca.

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