Pictured: Erick Baldemar and Tarina Bradshaw. Photo by Tom McGrath, TCMcG Photography.
By Conor McShane
Midsommer Flight’s annual performance of TWELFTH NIGHT is a prime example of what makes Chicago theater so special. Let in after-hours at the Lincoln Park Conservatory, audiences have the chance to wander through the building’s dense vegetation, enjoying the humid climate as a respite from the grey gloom of early winter. They then watch this Shakespearean comedy among the exquisite displays in the Conservatory’s showroom, as condensation drips on their heads from the domed structure above. It’s a theatrical experience like no other, and a great taste of Chicago’s theater-everywhere ethos.
Performing this play in this space for the fourth year in a row, the company hopes to make it a December tradition. It’s a nice respite from the more overtly holiday-themed entertainment that proliferates this time of year, while still in keeping with the season. One of Shakespeare’s most lighthearted plays, even by the standard of his other comedies, it tells the tale of Viola (Amanda Forman), a young woman who, after surviving a shipwreck, poses as a man in order to join the service of the Duke Orsino (Robert Hunter Bry). She was separated from her twin brother, Sebastian (Elliot Carter Cruz), and believes him to have drowned in the wreck. Unbeknownst to her, Sebastian survived, pulled from the wreckage by Antonio (Dominick Alesia). The two become friends, and as this production suggests, strike up some romantic feelings (Shakespeare’s text definitely leaves room for this as a plausible interpretation). Meanwhile, Duke Orsino is in love with Olivia (Tarina Bradshaw), a countess mourning the loss of her father and brother. He sends Viola, now called Cesario, to make romantic entreaties on his behalf. The plan backfires, as it always must in a Shakespearean comedy, when Olivia falls in love with Cesario. All sorts of romantic complications ensue, until the truth about Viola’s identity must be revealed.
Midsommer Flight’s production is a refreshingly gender- and sexuality-fluid interpretation of the text, with same-sex romance often suggested but never made overt. It’s enjoyable to watch a Shakespeare adaptation that takes a playful approach to casting, toying with this kind of fluidity. It’s especially appropriate in a play like this one, which investigates the nature of truth and identity. Shakespeare seems to suggest that a lie can become more true than the truth if it’s believed strongly enough, overriding our reason and our sanity. This is particularly evident in the play’s subplot, in which Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch (Anthony C. Brown), along with Sir Andrew Augecheek (Tim Lee), Olivia’s handmaiden Maria (Chelsee Carter), and the court fool Feste (Oly Oxinfry) trick Olivia’s servant Malvolio (Maureen Yasko) into believing that Olivia has fallen for him. When her advances are rebuffed by the understandably confused Olivia, Malvolio is driven to madness. This is definitely an example of when a prank goes just a little too far, and the consequences are the play’s least lighthearted element.
The cast does strong work across the board, handling the text with a lightness that makes it easy to follow. Many cast members also pull double duty as musicians, particularly Oxinfry, who sings many of the play’s songs and accompanies themself on the ukulele. When the rest of the actors join in on guitars, drums, and flute, the effect in the cavernous Conservatory is marvelous. As a whole, the camaraderie of the troupe is evident in their breezy presentation. The building’s acoustics have a tendency to muffle their voices on occasion, but luckily it doesn’t affect comprehension too much.
Midsommer Flight’s take on TWELFTH NIGHT is a sincere, deeply charming production, and very much deserving of your highly selective holiday entertainment dollars.
TWELFTH NIGHT runs through December 16th. For more information visit midsommerflight.com.