Guest director Austin Tichenor knows something about putting funny material onstage. He’s one of the zany minds behind The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) as a founder of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, which has cranked out numerous works in that vein (several of which had their initial productions at the Cincinnati Playhouse).
Now he has turned his attention to a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, and his loony fingerprints are all over it. In a director’s note, he calls the play “the Hamlet of the Comedies” since it features so many of Shakespeare’s favorite tricks: “a storm at sea, separated twins, crossdressing, lovelorn dukes, romantic confusion, tricksy devices, overheard conversations, multiple marriages, songs, clowns, and even ghosts.” Each and every one of these gets trotted out and amplified in Cincy Shakes’ rapid-fire production.
Tichenor has landed the tale in 1850s San Francisco, of all places, and Vince Salpietro’s set design — ropes, ships’ wheels, hardwood floors, a saloon bar — offers a flexible locale for a mishmash of adventure seekers, romantics, scoundrels and drunks. (In fact, during pre-show and intermission, audience members are invited onstage to the bar for “Just Shots,” priced at $8, and to mingle with cast members.) The show has many songs (which read as poems today, but were surely set to music back in the day) that have been "re-set" for production. For Cincy Shakes, actor William Cary Davenport composed a handful of numbers that are humorously inserted into various scenes and performed by Davenport and other actors with musical and singing skills.
Tichenor has also encouraged a considerable amount of anachronism in this rendition of Twelfth Night, with quick references to the likes of Michael Jackson (Geoffrey Warren Barnes II employs a “moonwalk” as twitchy Sir Andrew Aguecheek). Elsewhere, Feste the Fool (Paul Riopelle, with a backpack jangling with gold-panning gear) plays tunes on his harmonica, including “My Darling Clementine.”
This is not a Twelfth Night for Shakespearean purists, but the audience I sat with on Nov. 17 lapped it up, laughing from start to finish. As Viola, the separated twin who poses as a young man and becomes entangled in several romantic confusions, Caitlin McWethy is a delight to watch. She renders Shakespeare’s breathless lines with a modern, down-to-earth pragmatism; more than once she marvels at the strangeness of people’s behaviors by pointing to her head and making an exploding sound.
Billy Chace is the drunkard scoundrel Sir Toby Belch, out to make mischief wherever he can, abetted by scheming Fabian (Jeremy Dubin), silly Aguecheek (Barnes) and the manipulative maidservant Maria (Jennifer Joplin). Their singular victim is the officious Malvolio (Barry Mulholland), a dour, self-important house steward who is amusingly duped into behaving frivolously. Mulholland delivers a textbook comic performance, especially once he’s costumed in the ridiculous apparel — yellow stockings and vest and a painfully forced smile — which he has been led to believe will win the heart of Olivia (Abby Lee), the woman whose household he imperiously manages.
Lee gets to run the gamut from a reserved noblewoman to a giddy romantic when she falls for Cesario, McWethy’s cross-dressed Viola, sent to her by the serious-minded Duke Orsino (William Oliver Watkins) who hopes to make a noble match. Lee, at first dressed in a sober, grey mid-Victorian hoopskirt, returns in Act II donning a seductive silk gown embroidered with flowers. (Costumer Clara Jean Kelly has outdone herself with a riot of colorful costumes for this production.) Lee’s Olivia becomes ever more foolishly infatuated as the show progresses and then is delightfully befuddled, exclaiming “Most wonderful!” when Viola’s twin brother, the oh-so-male Sebastian (Patrick Earl Phillips), turns up and willingly responds to her advances.
If this all sounds a tad hard to follow (and if 1850s San Francisco seems like an unlikely setting), don’t fret. Moment to moment, Twelfth Night is entertaining if not altogether coherent. That’s probably pretty much the spirit with which Shakespeare wrote the play back in 1601; it’s called Twelfth Night because it was presented as a holiday night of tomfoolery, a Christmas celebration when servants often dressed as their masters, men as women and so forth. That’s pretty much what Cincy Shakes has delivered with an able assist from the deliriously fevered mind of Austin Tichenor.
Twelfth Night, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through Dec. 8. More info: cincyshakes.com.