If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

 “TWELFTH NIGHT” AT THE ZOO IN BRIDGEPORT

Connecticut Free Shakespeare recently opened its 11th season of outdoor performances at Bridgeport’s Beardsley Zoo with a loud and lively production of “Twelfth Night”, one of the Bard’s most popular comedies.  If Artistic Director Ellen Lieberman’s sunny, freely adapted version of the play doesn’t always make sense or play by the rules, it still serves as pleasant, hot weather entertainment.  And you can’t beat the price.

Lieberman’s “Twelfth Night” follows the Bard’s basic premise of twins separated in a shipwreck who land in the same country thinking the other is dead.  For a long time the play follows Viola whose twin brother, Sebastian, makes a late entrance into the proceedings after his sister has already disguised herself as a man and set to work in the house of Orsino.  Orsino is a powerful Duke who is obsessed with the beautiful but uninterested Olivia.  Olivia is mourning her dead brother and refuses the Duke’s advances until he sends Viola, now in male drag and named Cesario, to plead for her hand.  Olivia quickly falls for Cesario who, as Viola, is secretly in love with Orsino.  Olivia also has a head servant, the sour Malvolio, who harbors strong feelings for his mistress.  And that’s just the first 20 minutes or so.

Under the guidance of Lieberman, the Shakespeare troupe apparently knows its audience.  Little subtlety in the playing is in evidence resulting in broad, nearly cartoonish characters who practically knock themselves out for a laugh.  Although much of it comes off as forced jocularity, give the company credit for their non-stop energy and willingness to please.
 
What is missing, however, is any real poetry in the language or depth of feeling in many of the characters.  Lieberman has ignored much of the pathos and poignancy in the longing of Orsino or the deep sadness of Olivia and she’s taken several liberties with the text.  Two characters get a sex change - Antonio becomes Antonia, Fabian becomes Fabiana – while, in another scene, Malvolio briefly becomes a cross-dresser.  This particular choice, it must be admitted, did send the crowd into fits of laughter at my performance.

In general, the acting company is serviceable.  Talented Eric Nyquist, who essays the pivotal role of Feste, Olivia’s fool, also serves as the show’s affable narrator, intermission entertainment and musical director.  I hope they’re paying him by the song – there seems to be more music in this “Twelfth Night” than in all of “Les Miserables”.  I also enjoyed Andrew Clateman’s imperious Malvolia who, even clad in a long frilly dress of blazing yellow, kept his dignity.  In her sex change role, Channie Waites is a well-spoken, fiery Antonia while the Sebastian of Josh Vink is solid and sexy without pushing either quality too hard.

The Beardsley Zoo grounds do make a unique site for this picnic Shakespeare.  Gorgeous peacocks stroll the area with pride and, I understand, often join the actors on stage at some performances.  Sadly, they avoided the limelight on opening night.  Pity.  I would have welcomed their inclusion.

“”Twelfth Night” continues at the Bridgeport Zoo through July 31.  It will also play the Guilford Green August 4-8 and the Old Saybrook Town Green August 11-15.  For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre info line at 203.393.3213 or visit: www.CTFreeShakespeare.org.

Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company.  He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com.  His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.
This review first appeared in Elm City Newspapers beginning 7.21.10


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