Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Twelfth Night" in a Resplendent Setting in Door County

I'm not exactly sure why Door Shakespeare, the theater company that performs in the woods in Wisconsin's Door County, chose the image at left to represent it. That Dance of Death, seen at the end of Ingmar Bergman's "Seventh Seal" is not a happy or cheerful image, as it shows the people Death (avec sickle) is leading away to the Great Beyond. Door Shakespeare's image cuts off Death at one end as well as the jester at the other end, showing just the other players who meet Death at the end of the film. Still...

I don't see how that relates to Door Shakespeare. Except for the Scandinavian connection. I mean, they colored that logo in Swedish colors, and they stage their shows in the midst of nature at Björklunden vid Sjön, a beautiful, sprawling estate on the shores of Lake Michigan which bears a distinctly Swedish name.

"Twelfth Night," which has its last performance at Door Shakespeare tonight, takes full advantage of the Björklunden setting; they even offered a "roaming" option to playgoers on the night I saw it. That means, if you wanted to, you could tramp down to the shore with other audience members, arriving just in time to see leading lady Viola (played by Kay Allman for Door Shakespeare) and a helpful ship's captain (Mark Moede) appear as if by magic from out of the misty twilight, with the wide blue expanse of Lake Michigan as a backdrop. The sea breeze ruffled Viola's hair and dress, seagulls keened overhead, and waves crashed behind the players.

For a play that begins with a shipwreck, that was one fine way to open.

This roaming experiment involved two other scenes, as well, including the one where Duke Orsino commands, "If music be the food of love, play on," which should come first, but here was second, performed in a handy meadow. Anyway, it was the seaside entrance that really made an impact. Their motto at Door Shakespeare is "Timeless performance in a resplendent setting," which describes that opening nicely.

Safely back in our seats (folding chairs set up in tiers opposite a simple dirt playing space bounded by tall trees), we saw Viola, now disguised as a boy named Cesario, volunteer her services to the melancholy Duke (played by Steven Marzolf), including acting as his intermediary with lovely Olivia, who isn't at all interested in Orsino, but finds herself falling for Viola/Cesario. Ooops!

The comic plot involves Olivia's drunken, irresponsible uncle, Sir Toby Belch, his silly friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Maria, Olivia's servant, all of whom conspire against the fussbudget steward, one Malvolio, who doesn't appreciate their noisy shenanigans.

Throw in Sebastian, who happens to be Viola's twin, presumed-dead-but-not-so-dead brother, as well as a jester named Feste, hijinks involving a forged letter, yellow stockings and a poorly conceived duel, and almost everybody pining for someone he can't have, and you have "Twelfth Night."

Door Shakespeare and director Jerry Gomis don't mess with big props or set pieces, instead using the surroundings they've been given to frame the action. That includes Sir Toby and his pals eavesdropping from behind pine fronds, exits and entrances into the trees, and one pretty gate that Toby can't manage to unhook.

Gomis also played Malvolio at the performance I saw, and he was so good -- sort of a cross between Hollywood character actor Franklin Pangborn and Lucy's Gale Gordon with his rolled Rs and prissy demeanor -- it's hard to imagine the regular actor besting him.

Stephen Pearce was the youngest Toby Belch I've seen, and that undermined his performance a little, although it may just be that I don't really get into that part of the plot, anyway, since I'm really on Malvolio's side of that argument. (Drunken hooligans against the guy who runs a tight ship and is trying to get some sleep? Yeah, I'm with Malvolio every time.)

In that crowd, Barry Saltzman's Sir Andrew and his long blond hair looked funny enough (like Martin Short's Jackie Rogers Jr.) to make me laugh, anyway, and James Valcq, who is not only an actor but a composer (with "The Spitfire Grill," so recently performed at IWU, on his resume), tried gamely to elevate that tiresome clown Feste.

I also enjoyed Scot West's good-humored take on Sebastian, even if he was miles taller than Kay Allman and unlikely to be mistaken for her under any circumstances, and Leslie Ann Handelman's sparkling Olivia. I remembered Handelman from her performances at U of I in "Into the Woods" and "Intimate Apparel," and it's always nice to see Whatever Happened To.

This summer, Door Shakespeare chose "Twelfth Night" and an adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" for their summer season. Given how well the outdoor setting worked for "Twelfth Night," I'm hoping they will continue the "roaming" option and pick "The Tempest" and "Into the Woods" next year. I don't know how they'd pull off a whole orchestra, but they definitely have the woods and a viable Cinderella in Leslie Ann Handelman.

by William Shakespeare

Door Shakespeare

Director: Jerry Gomis
Costume Designer: Barb Portinga
Lighting and Scenic Design: Stewart Dawson

Cast includes: Steven Marzolf, Tim Murray, Ryan Shaw, Kay Allmand, Mark Moede, Stephen Pearce, Debra Babich, Barry Saltzman, James Valcq, Leslie Ann Handelman, Jerry Gomis and Scot West.


  1. This sounds lovely. "Twelfth Night" remains one of my permanent top-4 Shakespeares, and I try to see it any time a production's within reach. Wish I could have seen this. You refer to a roaming "option"; am I surmising correctly that the other option is to stay seated and miss the scene?

    Outdoor Shakespeare in natural settings has intriguing possibilities. I read (wish I could remember where, and I know I've talked about this to Julie in the past) about a "Tempest" on the shore of a lake (audience staying put) that sounds absolutely life-changingly magical:

    They managed to have an actual period-looking ship in the water for the first scene (tempest and shipwreck faked with special effects, of course), and then the rest of the play done on the lawn by the shore. Then when everyone is leaving the island, they all disembark on the ship. Of course by this time it's dark and the acting area has to be lit. Ariel stands on the end of the pier, and Prospero touches him with his staff one last time to set him free. And Ariel runs across the surface of the water (on a walkway just below the surface) to a pine tree off to the right, we see a flare zoom up the tree to the top, and fireworks explode from its tip into the night sky. Blackout.

  2. Re: roaming option... I think the seated people had the same three scenes (Viola arrives, Orsino does music/food of love, Toby, Maria and Andrew mess around) but in a different order. My guess is that while we were seeing Viola and the captain down at the shore, they were seeing Orsino. So then Orsino hoofed it down to the mid-spot on the lawn while we were leaving Viola, and while we roamers watched Orsino, the folks back in the theater clearing saw Toby/Maria/Andrew. By this time, Viola was back at the theater, and they saw her while we got Toby/Maria/Andrew scuffling outside this small Scandinavian chapel close to the theater. Viola then had time to change into her Cesario outfit while the roamers marched back into the theater and took our seats. I think the timing was probably tricky, but they found a way (and locations the right distance from each other) to make it work.

    I definitely want to see that Tempest! It was pretty magical just using the shore, so a whole ship would've been amazing.

    I think I've told you about a Tempest where the audience sat on drums/cans on the stage itself, and the cast climbed all over us since WE were the island. That was pretty cool, even without a real shore or a real ship. It was a visiting British company performing at the University of Illinois.