Matthew Johnson's program notes for Twelfth Night are a comic strip — a major indication of his daringly fun and stealthily smart approach to directing KCT Summerfest's season opener, one of Shakespeare's most playful comedies.
The cartoon depicts Shakespeare brewing up a stew of ingredients from his "trope rack," featuring bottles and jars of some of the Bard's favorite devices: dirty jokes, identity politics, cross-dressing, twins, shipwrecks.
Johnson takes Shakespeare's recipe a step further by boldly mixing in even more ingredients from our modern trope rack, including a fool who is part hobo, clown, jester and balladeer; a swaggering Southern gentleman from the past; and much more. These are not stereotypes but thoughtful, playful twists on cultural archetypes that cleverly unearth an aspect of each character that is most recognizable to contemporary audiences.
Essentially, Twelfth Night is a romantic comedy that revolves around mistaken identity. Viola (Dara Jade Tiller) and Sebastian (Conway Poteet) are twins (trope!), who are separated in a shipwreck (trope!). Viola goes in search of Sebastian by disguising herself as a man (trope!) named Cesario in the court of a count named Orsino (Demetrius Williams). Orsino is in love with the reclusive Lady Olivia (Julie McCluskey). But things change when Orsino meets Viola/Cesario.
Rarely have I seen a show in which costuming plays such an integral part of the narrative, but Kerry Peterson's designs provide playful clues as to what trope we're dealing with — and significant insight into character development.
The wardrobe for Olivia, for instance, begins with her cloaked in sweeping black skirts and a veil. The look emanates a kind of regal melancholy that reminded me of old Bette Davis films. But as she begins to fall in love, her hemlines get shorter and the veil disappears. On her wedding day, she is a free, unfettered, open-hearted modern woman in a cocktail dress.
Johnson also magnifies one of Shakespeare's favorite devices, the practical joke, which playfully thrusts the narrative momentum forward to hilarious effect. A gang of drunken revelers is played with panache by James Hamblin, Mike Van Zant, Alana Ghent and Jeni Benavides, who create some of the play's most laugh-inducing moments. The fun peaks with Adam Luckey's scheming Malvolio strutting around in yellow stockings and cross garters as the butt of the joke.
Twelfth Night, which continues through July 13, is Summerfest's first show in the MoonDance at Midnight Pass amphitheatre after years in The Arboretum.
I admit that I was disappointed when I heard that Summerfest was leaving the Arboretum, mostly because I was attached to the pastoral setting and what had become tradition built years before by the Lexington Shakespeare Festival. But Summerfest is not LSF. It has quickly developed its own identity, and bold moves are a key part of that brand.
Almost immediately upon entering the MoonDance, I understood why Summerfest made the switch to the venue set back in a suburban neighborhood.
It was nice to use a real public restroom instead of dreading the portable toilets at The Arboretum. And the sound never once crackled and cut out the way it used to. Gone were the helicopters traveling to nearby hospitals (although an airplane did fly overhead just a few minutes into the play, as if on cue). But otherwise the play was distraction-free.
The Arboretum's theater space was on a sloping hill, if you can call it that, but the stair-stepped amphitheater ensures high visibility from all areas. I sat in the back and had no trouble seeing or hearing.
The venue won me over. It's a great place to see outdoor theater.
Additionally, MoonDance's smaller scale, and an earlier start time of 8 p.m., gives the director an extra hour of natural light and a small-enough space to break the fourth wall and let actors enter throughout the amphitheater.
When the band of mischief-makers dispersed throughout the audience, with Hamblin sidling up to a couple on a blanket, the spectators were not only entertained. They were — and this is most significant — in on the joke, players themselves.
Johnson's casting is impeccable, and he allows the actors to discover quirks and oddities that elevate their trope-inspired roles well beyond stereotype to something altogether more interesting. For instance, Van Zant's suspender-wearing Sir Andrew Aguecheek reminded me as a cross of Groucho Marx and the Three Stooges. I never totally got exactly what he was supposed to be, but I tasted the full flavor of his characterization.
Before you think this mish-mash of tropes sounds too crazy — and indeed it might have ended up that way in the hands of a less skilled director and cast — remember that there is precedence within the text itself. Shakespeare, after all, drops a drunk Englishman named Toby Belch into a play filled with otherwise Italian names. He knew what he was doing: He was playing the audience, and Johnson does the same.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington writer.