So it’s Thanksgiving week and I’m wandering down memory lane to offer an insight into why I’m thankful to be a theater critic. I grew up in a small town near Cleveland, acted (poorly) in some high school productions and was infected with an abiding love for theater. As a teenager I sought out productions at places like the Cleveland Playhouse and summer seasons at Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival.
The latter was where I first saw Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in 1966. I was still in high school, and it was an hour’s drive to Lakewood from my home. But I’d become a subscriber and made the trek to see several classics every summer. In particular, Shakespeare’s story of love, disguise, confusion and tomfoolery enchanted me. As a college English major studying Shakespeare, I wrote a term paper about Feste, Twelfth Night’s clever fool.
I saw the play again at Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 1975, with esteemed actors Brian Bedford and Maggie Smith. He was the insufferable Malvolio, tricked into foolish behavior by drunken relatives of his employer, haughty Lady Olivia. The magnificent Smith (best known today as the snobby Lady Grantham on Downton Abbey) took on that aloof but spirited role.
I moved to Cincinnati in 1980 and suffered through a dry spell of more than a decade with only a few Shakespearean productions presented locally. But when the Fahrenheit Theatre Company (which became Cincinnati Shakespeare Company) burst forth in 1994, one of its first productions was Twelfth Night. That one was at Gabriel’s Corner, a church basement venue in Over-the-Rhine. I was charmed again by Shakespeare’s wordplay, his humorously conceived characters and his intricate plotting along the way to a happy if unlikely resolution when confusion is sorted out with breathtaking speed.
That was the same year CityBeat began publishing (both CityBeat and Cincy Shakes mark their 20th anniversary this year), and I became its theater critic. I saw more and more theater of all sorts, but it was a special treat to watch a company focused on classics. As Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, it revived Twelfth Night in 2001. A production of the play opened the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s 2004-05 season, staged by then Producing Artistic Director Ed Stern.
Cincy Shakes staged it again in 2008 through a Jazz Age filter that captured the show’s universality. It featured actress Sara Clark as Viola, posing as a young man and igniting many of Twelfth Night’s comic complications. Clark learned her way around the show’s comic twists and turns, and now she’s returned to the comedy as its director for the current sparkling production onstage at the Race Street theater.
Clark has evoked delightful work from Cincy Shakes’ acting company. Jeremy Dubin (in his 14th season) is Feste, the witty fool who repeatedly proves wiser than the silly folk around him. Corinne Mohlenhoff (another 14-year veteran) interprets Olivia as a strong-minded woman with an undercurrent of libido for Viola/Cesario (Maggie Lou Rader). Luckily, Viola’s twin Sebastian (Charlie Cromer), initially mystified by Olivia’s aggressive attention, is more than willing to become the object of her affection. That leaves Viola — once her gender is revealed — free to hook up with lovelorn Count Orsino (Brent Vimtrup), who has been charmed by her pose as a quick-witted, enterprising young man.
If that sounds a tad complicated, well, you should check out Clark’s clear production at Cincinnati Shakespeare (through Dec. 15). Not only is that intricate tale told with good humor and clarity, there’s a comic subplot involving drunken rabble-rouser Sir Toby Belch (Jim Hopkins channels a vibrant vein of Falstaffian bad behavior), the ridiculously foppish Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Justin McCombs, a master of silliness) and Maria (a maid with a mischievous mind of her own, played by the always amusing Miranda McGee). They make Paul Riopelle’s humorless Malvolio the butt of a practical joke that’s one of the funniest moments you’ll ever find onstage when he strains to court Lady Olivia, mistakenly believing she has encouraged his attention. Riopelle’s forced smiles, his odd apparel and his ridiculous preening constitute a comic tour-de-force.
It’s obvious that I love this play. Twelfth Night ticks along like a fine Swiss cuckoo clock, never failing to surprise and delight. I love trying to follow Feste’s bantering, and it’s such fun when everything falls into place, astonishing each and every character. I wouldn’t have ended up as a theater critic without shows like this, and I’m thankful to return to them with regularity.
CONTACT RICK PENDER : [email protected]