Fort Worth — Schopenhauer once said, “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” In Trinity Shakespeare Festival’s 10th year, we see this aphorism examined in two plays, Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet, which also happen to be the two plays the Texas Christian University-sponsored festival opened with in 2009.
Blake Hackler makes his directorial debut for the festival with an enchanting Twelfth Night. The play opens with a thunder clap and lightning and woosh!...Viola (Kelsey Milbourn) appears on stage in spotlight, gasping and water logged from her near death experience upon the sea. Right out of the gate, we are treated to two things of note. First, this is actually scene two in the play, but Hackler decides to place it first and by doing so achieves a symmetry with the closing of the play (the famous “hey, ho, the wind and rain” song by the Fool) and introduces the main characters quickly (always helpful in a mistaken identity/crossdressing tale). Having Duke Orsino (Garret Storms) and Olivia (Hackler, in a last-minute change) appear momentarily on stage for the benefit of the audience while the Sea Captain (Richard Leaming) explains to Viola that they are in Illyria, where Orsino rules and is in love with Olivia. Second, it sets the expectations for the audience. This is a play that will treat us with technical expertise. The timing of the lighting by Tristen Decker, the sound by Kate Marvin, and movement are perfect for a complicated scene, and the costumes by Lloyd Cracknell simply dazzling.
The switched around scene one comes next, and we are introduced to the first “will that wills what it will” in Storms’ Orsino. While Storms’ Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet (more on this later) is riveting, this role calls for delicacy and Storms delivers. He is lovesick for Olivia, but she is still mourning the death of her brother and won’t allow herself to be wooed.
What you need to know at this point is that the festival of Twelfth Night in 17th century England was a bit like Mardi Gras or Halloween. Slaves dressed up as masters, women as men, and vice-versa. A servant was usually appointed the “Lord of Misrule” at parties and his job was to ensure that everyone was taking part in the festivities as well as generally causing mischief.
In I.iii we are introduced to the play’s “Lord of Misrule” (or lords, or lords and lady, depending on how finicky you want to get with this analogy): Sir Toby Belch (J. Brent Alford) who played the same role in the premiere season of Trinity Shakespeare Festival, Maria (Emily Gray) a serving woman of Lady Olivia who also appeared in the same role in 2009, and Sir Andrew (Richard Haratine) a traveling nobleman and acquaintance of Sir Toby. There really isn’t enough ink in the TheaterJones.com printing press to do justice to the comedic ability of these actors. Mr. Alford’s ability with Shakespeare’s wordplay, Ms. Gray’s comic timing, and everything from Mr. Haratine’s facial contortions to his surprisingly dexterous gymnastic ability are outstanding.
Now before we introduce the next scene, I want to address why we are going scene by scene up to this point. First, to bury the lede in sixth paragraph, this is a spectacularly well done production of one of the Bard’s most popular plays. Second, it helps frame a bit of the discussion that has happened within the community about Mr. Hackler taking over the part of Olivia. Third, I want to get as much detail down as possible, so if one has any quibbles about my conclusions re: Romeo & Juliet, which I did not enjoy because of the casting and non-thematic musical selections, you’ll have plenty of ammunition to pick it apart.
So in I.iv, we are back with Orsino, and we find out that Viola has transformed herself into Cesario and has ingratiated himself/herself to the Duke, who asks her to woo Olivia on his behalf, but we also find out that Viola/Cesario is in fact in love with the Duke. We are treated at this point to some lovely background work by the extras in the scene by the male ensemble cast (Matthew Parker, Reece Griffin, Jacob Trevino, William Wheeler, Quinn Moran), and these cast members are absolutely wonderful as part of the background setting the tone of the play throughout.
Here we are in I.v (I promise this is the last scene-by-scene) we are (re-) introduced to Olivia (Hackler) and introduced to her fool Feste (Brandon Murphy), and her attendant, Malvolio (Thomas Ward). Much has been said of Hackler’s decision to substitute himself in after the tragic injury to Jessica Turner just days before the curtain, as opposed to casting one of the many local women who could have jumped into this role quickly, especially since gender-switching this role wasn't the plan from the outset. All I will add to the conversation is that after the first five minutes of Mr. Hackler being onstage, I had completely forgotten that he was a man at all; I was watching Olivia. Her last lines that close Act I reinforce Schopenhauer as well:
I do I know not what, and fear to find
Mine eye too great a flatterer for my mind.
Fate, show thy force: ourselves we do not owe;
What is decreed must be, and be this so.
Now prepare yourself for a “fast forward” (or you may have been prepared for some time) with the briefest review of the play and performance and a somewhat abrupt transition.
The performances are exemplary; I cannot point to a single weak spot in the play. The acting, technical direction, costumes, music (carried mostly by the terrific Brandon Murphy), sound effects, and every aspect of this staging is sublime.
Here we get into the tricky transition and a moment to discuss casting in a summer festival in which one cast appears in two plays. Twelfth Night’s leads are all professional actors. Romeo and Juliet’s leads and several main characters are TCU students. This certainly gives an unfair advantage to Twelfth Night, but we must judge by what an artist presents.
Romeo (Quinn Moran), a rising senior at TCU, has a solid stage presence, but the required emotional range isn’t there. Romeo’s brooding for Rosalind, which in many ways sets the play in motion, is more a minor bother in Moran’s interpretation. Juliet (Carly Wheeler) also has a compelling presence but fails to reach the high notes and low notes of Juliet’s emotional arc. I will grant them that if this were a purely college production, I would applaud their ability. One of the beauts of the TSF model is that TCU theater students work with professional artists, but I wonder why director T.J. Walsh decided to go with these student-actors and put them a little out of their depth.
The play then requires Mercutio (Garret Storms), the Nurse (Emily Gray, returning to the role again from 2009), Capulet (J. Brent Alford), Friar Laurence (Richard Haratine), Prince Escalus (Thomas Ward) and Lady Capulet (Kelsey Milbourn) to carry the play as much as they can. Storms’ Mercutio is every bit the half-mad, emotional rollercoaster that you need in that role, and Gray’s Nurse is the yin and yang of joy and heartbreak. There’s only so much these characters can do in a play entitled Romeo and Juliet, as it’s not about them.
The costumes by Aaron Patrick DeClerk are every bit as wonderful as those in Twelfth Night, setting the period and place of Verona clearly in the imagination of the audience. And speaking of the technical, I don’t know if it was Mr. Moran not being able to find his light or the lighting director (Michael Skinner), but at the performance reviewed, Romeo was in the dark more times than not, and the scenes generally were unnecessarily dark. Jeff Colangelo’s fight choreography is well executed in both plays, but especially in Romeo and Juliet, as he has limited space to work with and a lot of actors have swords drawn.
Last we come to the musical choices of Dr. Walsh. Romeo and Juliet has proven almost infinitely adaptable. Want to do it in the Bronx and make it a musical? No problem, you’ll potentially have a huge Broadway hit. Want to do it in Prague during the Cold War, Bosnia during the civil war, Isreal/Palestine, Syria, no problem. It’s that versatile.
But it’s odd that Dr. Walsh incorporates modern Christian pop music into this production that is definitely not modern; it’s a sore thumb sticking out from a production that already had some challenges to overcome. Choosing to shoehorn anything into Shakespeare that’s not supported by the text, the costume, or set begs the question as to why it’s there and what purpose does it serve the work. I couldn’t come up with an answer.
Horace wrote something similar to Schopenhauer about 2,000 years prior: “You can drive nature out with a pitchfork, she will nevertheless come back.” All of these characters’ natures are clearly revealed to us and as hard as they, try they can’t seem to turn off what they want. Most action in Shakespeare is driven by those whose wills are in combat with their actions, until they’re not. Wills and actions of the characters and cast of Twelfth Night reach the harmony as the late Harvard professor emeritus (and Cleburne, Texas, native) Herschel Baker’s describes as “life, as most of us come to know it, is a frayed and tattered thing of unexpressed desires and disappointed hopes, and its tumults rarely find repose. In the world depicted by Twelfth Night, however, it would seem that perturbation leads to calm and all suspensions are resolved, so that by happy if implausible coincidence affected virtue is rewarded, folly is exposed, and error yields to knowledge.”
Hackler’s Twelfth Night puts the pieces of the puzzle together; Walsh’s Romeo and Juliet gets a decent amount of the puzzle right, but jams a few pieces in that just don’t belong.
REMAINING PERFORMANCES in TSF 2018
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 3: Twelfth Night
7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 5: Romeo and Juliet
7:30 p.m. Friday, July 6: Twelfth Night
7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 7: Romeo and Juliet
2:30 p.m. Sunday, July 8: Twelfth Night
7:30 p.m. Sunday, July 8: Romeo and Juliet