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If music be the food of love, play on – ‘Twelfth Night’

May 5, 2021
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If music be the food of love, play on – ‘Twelfth Night’ (photo courtesy UMaine School of Performing Arts)

ORONO – There’s something inherently fun about outdoor theatre. I’m not sure I can put my finger on it; it’s more a combination of things. The sun, the fresh air - it just feels like a nice mix with theatre in general and Shakespeare in particular, at least to me. Watching people tell you a story while the sun sets is a heck of a way to spend an evening.

Now, our current circumstances have made it a bit more difficult. Take the University of Maine School of Performing Arts, for instance. Their plan was to present an outdoor production of Shakespeare’s beloved comedy “Twelfth Night, Or What You Will” in the Lyle E. Littlefield Ornamentals Trial Garden on the UMaine campus in Orono. Unfortunately, the ever-changing pandemic dynamics meant that they could not perform for audiences.

Well … not LIVE audiences, anyway.

See, rather than let the situation defeat them, they went ahead and did the show anyway. They’re theatre kids, folks – you’re not going to stop them.

And so, the University of Maine School of Performing Arts is presenting their filmed version of “Twelfth Night” for streaming through May 9. Directed by Julie Arnold Lisnet, the show is available through the UMaine SPA website – just visit and you’ll be on your way. Tickets are $12 for the general public and just $3 for UMaine students.

“Twelfth Night” is a story of hilarious story of love and lust, of twins and deceit, of booze and cross-dressing – all set in the land of Illyria, where a shipwreck sets in motion a love triangle that ultimately turns out to be more of a rectangle, alongside a wealth of ribald ripostes and a conspiracy of comedic deception. Gender confusion, mistaken marriages and yellow tights abound.

A ship goes down off the coast of Illyria. A young woman named Viola (Katie Brayson) is helped to shore following the disaster. She has been separated from her twin brother Sebastian (Martin Guarnieri) and believes him to be drowned. Left with few options, she disguises herself as a man in hopes of making her way in this new world.

Now going by Cesario, Viola enters the employ of Duke Orsino (Owen Sinclair). Orsino dispatches his new servant to call upon the Lady Olivia (Julia Whinston), a noblewoman that the Duke professes to love. Despite Olivia’s mournful refusal to accept suitors, she finds herself drawn to this Cesario. In the meantime, Viola is developing feelings for her new master.

So basically: Orsino loves Olivia, who loves Cesario, who is actually Viola, who loves Orsino. Got it? Oh and it turns out that Sebastian definitely survived and he’s wandering around as well.

Meanwhile, Olivia’s druncle Sir Toby Belch (Connor Bolduc) and his high-strung friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Andrew Beaucage) are enjoying a merry stay with Olivia, drinking and partying and generally being nuisances. It’s all fun and games until Olivia’s killjoy steward Malvolio (William Bickford) chastises them. That’s all the excuse the two need to seek revenge, enlisting the help of the fool Feste (Peter Natali) and the probably-smarter-than-all-of-them chambermaid Maria (Brooke Sossong).

Hijinks ensue, as they often do.

I’m a firm believer in the importance of ensemble when it comes to Shakespeare, and “Twelfth Night” is no different. When there are so many plates that must remain spinning, so many balls that must remain in the air, it’s vital that the players on the stage can trust one another to bring forward the meaning of the Bard’s words. It isn’t easy.

To that end, Lisnet has assembled an excellent ensemble, bringing together a gifted group of young actors who never stop having fun as they stagger and swoon their way through one of Shakespeare’s best and funniest works. The nobles are suitably noble, while the lovers are delightfully lusty. The heroes earn our cheers and the comic relief our chuckles, while the villain is wonderfully hissable and eminently mockable.

Brayson brings a buoyancy to Viola (and to her alter-ego Cesario) that drives the chaotic three-way courtship between “himself,” Duke Orsino and Lady Olivia. As the Duke and Lady, Sinclair and Whinston bring an aristocratic flavor and flair to their respective romantic pursuits, while Guarnieri provides an amiable presence (and surprising flashes of edge) as Sebastian. It’s a complex dance, but these actors navigate it with aggressive, amorous grace.

The adventures of the drunken Sir Toby Belch and the fey Sir Andrew Aguecheek, brought to vivid and rip-roaring life by Bolduc and Beaucage (who kind of sound like an old-timey comedy duo, come to think of it) bring interludes filled with entertaining deceit, idle threats and boozy charm to their time onstage. The interplay between the two is full of base humor and braggadocio and is great fun. Natali’s turn as as the fool Feste brings an infectious energy to the stage that’s sure to make you laugh; whether he’s singing you a folk song, waggling his marotte or wearing a false beard, he is wonderfully engaging. Throw in the sharp wit and self-assurance of Sossong’s Maria and you’re really cooking. Bickford’s stick-in-the-mud Malvolio is a pleasure to dislike – the character is one of my favorites of the Bard’s comic villains – and serves as a fine butt to Sir Toby’s elaborate joke.

They’re far from alone up there, of course. Peter Bacon, Karissa Cooper, Marlowe Gardner, Jonathan Jue-Wong, Bell Gellis Morais, Emma Ouellette, Neily Raymond, Ethan Rhoad and Wyatt Sykes are all significant factors. Some play larger parts, others small, but all are absolutely vital to the creation of the living breathing Illyria we get to watch.

It’s a vibrant place to be sure, thanks to the beautiful and bucolic setting. Thanks to the work of Asher Mason (who designed the flexible and functional set pieces) and Michelle Handley (who put together an aesthetically engaging collection of costumes), viewers are gifted a well-realized place in which to experience the show.

Is it ideal? Of course not – there’s no way for filmed productions to fully capture the magic of live theatre. And there’s no doubt that these student performers would much prefer to be doing this show many different times for many different audiences. That said, there’s no denying the passion and joy that everyone involved has poured into this production. It is a worthwhile effort – one that will reward those who take the time to seek it out.

“Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.” – Feste (Act I, scene v)

Last modified on Wednesday, 05 May 2021 06:10

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