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Nashville Scene Gender in the Grass

Shakespeare Festival performs 'Twelfth Night'

By Deanna Larson

AUGUST 24, 1998:  At the height of summer, human appetites need to be wooed. Ravenous and noisy in winter, hunger becomes coy in July and August, hiding behind 90-degree temperatures and flower-wilting humidity. It is coaxed out with promises of lightness, piquant spiciness, and refreshment.

The Nashville Shakespeare Festival's decision to stage Twelfth Night for this year's Shakespeare in the Park series is predicated on this idea. One of Shakespeare's last romantic comedies, the play's very title celebrates whetting and satisfying the appetites--all of them--while creating maximum merriment.

Since outdoor eating and entertainment appeal to sun-drenched senses, the idea of Shakespeare in the open air is perfect for a Nashville summer, not only to underscore the nature metaphors sprinkled throughout Shakespearean text, but to also give modern audiences a true flavor of 16th- and 17th-century theatrical performance. The old Globe Theater in London charged plebes a penny for the cheap seats--which in the open-roofed theater meant under the weather, whatever the season. Gallants and other wealthy patrons paid more to sit around the covered gallery and eventually on the stage itself. As the afternoon performances wore on, natural lighting grew brighter, then gradually dimmed, without relation to the time of day specified in the stage directions.

At Centennial Park, everybody's in the cheap seats. And weather permitting, this means dry, grass-lined "boxes" and cool dusk to modulate the lighting softly in the first half of the performance. As Twelfth Night begins with tender art song and strings, it's clear that among the trees is the perfect setting for this play, a tale of natural drives run amok in mistaken identities, lovesickness, and revelry.

Twelfth Night, also known as Epiphany, was traditionally a day when nothing was sacred and societal expectations were turned upside down. Against this backdrop, Shakespeare sets his story about Viola and Sebastian, twins who go down in a shipwreck. The ship's captain saves Viola, who finds herself on the shores of Illyria. Believing her brother lost at sea, she dresses in his clothing and goes to the court of Orsino as "Cesario." Orsino is in unrequited love with Olivia, who mourns the death of her own brother and is sworn off romance. Viola falls in love with Orsino, who, thinking Viola is a man, retains her to woo Olivia on his behalf. Meanwhile, Olivia falls in love with the fresh and witty young Cesario, unaware that he's actually a woman.

The lovesick plot gets much needed levity from Olivia's household, which consists of Feste, her sardonic fool; Maria, her lady-in-waiting; Sir Toby Belch, her drunken uncle; and Malvolio, her chief of staff--yet another character who's in love with Olivia. Also waiting in line for the woman's affections is Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a foolish fop in Sir Toby's thrall.

To illustrate the hyper-real suspension of disbelief required for this Chinese box of a plot, the Nashville Shakespeare Festival production is acted against a stage full of silk flowers, trompe l'oeil marble, and long canvas drops depicting a butterscotch-disk sun painted above acid-green trees.

Many of the characters are Chinese boxes, too, with a depth and profundity far beyond their surface silliness. Feste is a wicked, wise cynic who interprets the lovers' folly for the audience--even as he identifies us as easy marks. David Alford plays him as a poignant Pan, turning a mood, an accent, a couplet on a dime; he's utterly charming and bright about his own unreliability in an unpredictable world.

Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played by Ray Thornton, is a dandy with dignity. From the moment he enters the stage, Thornton's lanky, elastic frame and darting eyes recall the humor and pathos of Stan Laurel; his character's attempts at love generate laughs, but with a bittersweet aftertaste. Matt Carlton, who plays Sir Toby, is the rotund, jolly foil for Aguecheek, giving his role a generous, warm humor.

At the opening-night performance last Friday, these two actors' natural chemistry anchored every scene they played and won over the audience. In one scene, Aguecheek, Sir Toby, and Maria set up Malvolio with a fake love letter, then hide among the picnicking audience to observe his reaction. As Malvolio reads the letter aloud, the three conspirators stage-whisper a commentary, while Thornton reaches into a nearby cooler for a swig of Dr. Pepper.

Mary Tanner interprets Viola with a thoroughly modern sexual ambiguity that extends the possibilities of the role reversal, almost rendering her partnering with Orsino at the end a consolation prize. Helen Shute-Pettaway, as Olivia, reads her lines in a melodious, nuanced operatic style that centers the chaotic action and draws it along with hypnotic power.

As written, the plot of Twelfth Night is already a stretch, and the Nashville Shakespeare Festival production tends to pinpoint the incredulity rather than giving it definite shape and focus. Early scenes crucial to an understanding of the conceits we're supposed to forgive later on seemed rushed, making a complete surrender of disbelief to the plot devices difficult. But the tempo and brightness of the production satisfy the "light summer fare" mood. This Twelfth Night is lively fun and full of masterful comic turns--a frothy confection not required to be heavy or communicate volumes.

"And the rain it raineth every day," Feste sings in the closing verse. But during a long, humid summer, it's dry, light life lessons that hit the spot. In this regard, Nashville Shakespeare Festival has succeeded quite nicely.

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