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In all my 30-plus years of reviewing Oak Park Festival Theatre's outdoor productions, I have never attended an opening night that was rained out — until Twelfth Night last Saturday.
The show was going strong — fun and captivating — when it began to mist lightly. First they paused the performance to cover the speakers with plastic. Then, as the sprinkling intensified, the play was stopped again. This time they totally removed the speakers. The show resumed without sound amplification, yet I did not observe any audience members scrambling for their cars.
When lightning began to get closer and louder, however, since we were all sitting at the foot of a large metal tech tower, the production was abruptly halted, just short of the intermission. As the cast did a quick curtain call we all took off running.
The audience was assured, of course, that we could return whenever we wished to see the rest of the show.
I for one cannot wait to get back this weekend. I've seen two other Festival versions of the play over the years, so I know how it all "turns out." But Oak Park Festival Theatre has staged such a colorful, innovative production, transporting Shakespeare's popular comedy of gender confusion into the world of the 1960s "Beach Party" movies, that I'm really looking forward to seeing what director Lavina Jadhwani and her intrepid troupe do with the rest of it.
Is it fair to review only half a production? Perhaps not, but I saw enough in that lively hour to note how well the zany '60s time frame works, how strong the direction and ensemble performances are, and how thoroughly the audience seemed to be enjoying the well-paced, music-infused production — until the rains came.
There are always purists, of course, who object to any updating or altering of the original Elizabethan period. In this version, as Festival's publicity declares, "The Bard goes to the beach!" Shakespeare's cross-dressing comedy about ship-wrecked twins, mistaken identity, and romantic confusion has been imaginatively rethought and hilariously remounted in the teen-oriented beach movie milieu.
This accessible new Twelfth Night is a lot of fun. Mind you, the "Beach Parties" were never deep or insightful motion pictures. Films like Where the Boys Are or Gidget Goes Hawaiian were just innocent romps in the sun, featuring plenty of music, romance, and dorky old character actors providing comic relief.
As a teen in the '60s, I worked as a cashier in the snack bar of a drive-in movie theater. I never actually saw any of the films, but we heard them piped in all night long via the blaring overhead sound system. It's bizarre to me now to recall that a Frankie-and-Annette beach party double-feature was held over so many weeks that we snack bar workers could recite entire pages of dialogue without ever having seen a single frame of either film!
When I met director Jadwani at a pre-show reception at the Visitors Center, Saturday, she shared that the beach party films reminded her of all the Bollywood films she saw growing up as a child of South Asian parents. The music and swirling colors, the dancing and romance, are much alike in both branches of cinema.
Though Shakespeare is quintessentially English, the change in period and concept works well. The set, by Joe Schermoly, features a prominent lifeguard tower, a row of colorful surfboards, a picnic table, and even a cabana bar, brightly lit up with tinsel and party lights. Actors wear bold print tropical shirts, swimming suits, cut-offs and assorted beachwear.
The play seems to have been pruned to a manageable length. The plot, like many of the '60s beach romps, is a delightfully absurd love triangle. A suave, buff, and likable nobleman named Orsino (Chris Ballou) is saddened because he cannot have the love of Olivia (Jhenai Mootz), who is mourning the loss of her brother. Shipwrecked Viola (Lucy Carapetyan) reinvents herself as a boy named Cesario so she can enjoy greater freedom and flexibility. She/he is employed by Orsino to woo Olivia on his behalf. But a bittersweet chain of events ensues with Olivia falling for Cesario, Viola falling for her master Orsino, and Orsino worrying he, too, may have a crush on Cesario.
As lovely Viola, the lynchpin of the entire show, Lucy Carapetyan makes her transformation credible. When the lovely countess Olivia meets Cesario, desire trumps her grief and a bittersweet chain of events follows. The comedy asks the question, "What happens when you fall in love with the wrong person?"
There are wonderful rabble-rousing clowns, led by the constantly conniving and inebriated Sir Toby Belch, played by Jack Hickey. He's Olivia's boisterous uncle. Pretentious, pompous Malvolio is solidly played by Will Clinger. John Crosthwaite has some great daffy moments as the clueless Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a worthy sidekick to drunken Sir Toby. Sir Andrew is also trying to court Olivia.
Feste, a lively troubadour, is Scot West, who is clearly having a lot of fun in the role. Katy Carolina Collins is charming as mischievous, scheming Maria.
Viola's twin, noble Sebastian (Luke Daigle), has also survived the shipwreck and is combing the beaches with a new friend, Antonio (Pat King).
Though I saw only the first half of this production, director Jadhwani seems to effectively capture the underlying sense of bitterness, sadness, and loss behind much of the raucous comedy.
There are many pleasures to be savored in this lovely, lively production and I anxiously anticipate coming back this weekend to enjoy the rest of Oak Park Festival Theatre's Twelfth Night.