At outdoor summer Shakespeare festivals, there is always the risk of inclement weather ruining a performance. The beauty of the brand new Trinity Shakespeare Festival in Fort Worth is that it's in the great air-conditioned indoors, and the show goes on, even during rain. But that doesn't mean the elements can't be magically conjured inside. In TSF's Twelfth Night, which runs in rotating repertory with Romeo and Juliet, rain is an important symbol throughout, even though there isn't a drop of water onstage.
Twelfth Night, directed by TSF's artistic director T.J. Walsh, closes with a song performed by the clown Feste (David Coffee), who sings of the rain that "raineth all day." Walsh extends this theme by having Feste open the play with a rather melancholy tune (the music is composed by Martin Desjardins) as well, and in Michael Heil's sumptuously surreal set design—practically an art installation—there are constant reminders that while the elements could always put a damper on things, life goes on. The lush green trees are shaped like umbrellas and the dominant image is a giant framed painting of rain clouds on the horizon, pleasingly placed upstage left so as not to mess up the full picture with anything as boring as symmetry.
But, like one of the play's themes, it is an illusion.
If the idea was to overcast a darker tone on this Twelfth Night, then mission accomplished. And guess what? It works beautifully. (We'll get back to that.)
On the flip side, Romeo and Juliet—also masterfully designed—brings out more comedy (in the first half, at least) than is usually seen in productions of the Bard's most famous tale of woe. Credit that to Alexander Burns' direction, which is also a revelation on many levels.
This is the inaugural season for Trinity Shakespeare Festival, a product of Texas Christian University that combines student and professional actors in an effort to return the world's greatest dramatist to Fort Worth summers after its beloved Shakespeare in the Park folded in 2002. ("Trinity" in the organization's name not only pays homage to the North Texas river and the "C" in TCU, but also Trinity Park, which SITP called home for nearly a quarter-century).
Although both productions have some performance flaws, overall they are two of the most fully realized classical theater productions seen on any local stage in a good while. Any reservations you might have about not being able to picnic while watching swordplay and hearing verse will be instantly erased once you get a load of the exquisite visual and aural beauty onstage.
Twelfth Night has its rain, but there is also a strong visual symbol in Romeo and Juliet. Brian Clinnin's scenic design (he also did the costumes, which are even more extraordinary in the up-close viewing on the intimate thrust stage in the Hays Theater) is fairly simple, with flashes of elegance. The eye is drawn to a cross-stage ramp that provides texture, and also to a shallow aqueduct (that's an Italian innovation, right?) running right down the middle of the stage, dividing the warring Montague and Capulet houses. At first, it seems an odd fixture. But after the killing of Mercutio (Andrew Milbourn)—in a surprisingly convincing sword fight; Eric Domuret is fight choreographer for both shows—the trench starts filling with red liquid. It warns that there is much bloodshed to come, and stands as a reminder of the lifeforce that binds families together. After all, blood is what runs through our veins and keeps hearts—and other organs—pumping.
Despite all the der-ama of Romeo and Juliet, Burns reminds us that Shakespeare was a fan of bawdy humor, and it's even evident in his tale of star-crossed lovers. The comedy and the language are executed expertly by Andrew Milbourn, David Coffee as Capulet (another intriguing element of TSF is that all of the actors appear in both plays), Jeffrey Schmidt as Tybalt and especially Emily Gray as Juliet's nurse.
When this play is studied, the Nurse always emerges as the character who's supposed to provide the comic relief. But in all honestly, it's rare to see a production in which this role is outrageously funny. Gray, who is almost unrecognizable with a missing tooth and finger, is. But her portrayal is not a caricature, she's not merely playing it up for broad laughs. She is also a second mother to Juliet, and when it comes time for her to express genuine concern and intense grief, she delivers. Another surprise here is David Fluitt, who turns the often throwaway role of Friar Lawrence into a character worth caring for.
As for the title characters, Daniel Fredrick and Kelsey Milbourn take a while to warm up. On opening night, they both seemed a little uncomfortable in the first half, making their characters' supposed love at first sight not so believable. Fredrick in particular relies on heavy arm gestures, which gets in the way of language. Juliet, of course, has the task of delivering some heavy duty speeches, and Milbourn warms into it as the play progresses. By the time she takes the apothecary's potion, she has completely given into the beauty of the language. Considering that in this production, the famous balcony extends over part of the stage like a diving board, it's almost as if Milbourn has finally mustered the courage to do a double somersault with full twist and take the plunge.
One minor gripe: During the first major sword fight, it is hard to hear Capulet's lines over the grunts of battle. And when David Coffee speaks, you want to listen.
But lest ye think his Capulet is the best you've ever seen in that role, check out his Feste in Twelfth Night. Coffee is a career scene-stealer, sometimes to the detriment of the production. There's probably no local actor of his age who's better at clowning. But Feste, like many of Shakespeare's fools, is devastatingly poignant underneath that veneer of cheer, and Coffee brings an adept world-weariness to the role, conveying the play's idea that things aren't always what they seem.
Twelfth Night is a play with an appreciation for the arts, as evidenced in its very first line: "If music be the food of love, play on." Duke Orsino (Schmidt) delivers that (after Feste has already serenaded the audience with an opening song, not written into the Bard's original), and like rain, music is a recurring element in Walsh's production. One notable addition is a section where, during one of Sir Toby Belch's (J. Brent Alford) drunken scenes with Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Fredrick) and Fabian (Clayton Meeks), they riff on The 12 Days of Christmas, which ties in with the holiday reference in the play's title.
In this production, the land of Illyria might as well be in an Oscar Wilde-imagined garden. The stunning costumes (by Aaron Patrick Turner) tell us that the action happens in Victorian times, which works nicely for the subplot with Malvolio (Fluitt), a character who represents Puritan hypocrisy. In one scene, Turner has Fluitt hilariously dressed, hat to toe, so much like our cartoon vision of a Puritan that he could be on Pilgrim's Pride package. Fluitt is no chicken, though, in his full-force attack on the character's shenanigans. His reading of the "some are born great" letter deserves bigtime up-snaps.
Another standout is Trisha Miller Smith as countess Olivia (Smith winningly plays Lady Capulet in the other play), who shows off her skill with deliciously funny physical and verbal comedy as the woman who falls in love with what she thinks is a man named Cesario. He, of course, is the play's heroine Viola (Susan Helvenston) in disguise, who was separated from her brother Sebastian (Milbourn) in the stormy shipwreck that brought them to Illyria.
Trusting Viola in the hands of a college student—Helvenston is TCU senior—is a risky move, and it doesn't entirely pay off. It's always hard for any actress in this role to shine around the other vibrant characters, and Helvenston never fully emerges from the background. Perhaps her recitation of Shakespeare's verse is a little too conversational and low-key.
Ultimately, though, this Twelfth Night is a success. Like Romeo and Juliet, it's a complete concept that is well worth every effort to secure a ticket. In both shows, the college students stand every chance to learn and grow by sharing the stage with this many skilled pros.
These are probably the best-looking Shakespeare productions seen in North Texas in a decade. The costumes in both (which benefit from a sizable budget at a private university) are the kind of achievement that deserve the illumination of theatrical lighting (the poetic lighting is by Tristan Decker in 12N, Michael Skinner in R&J). The vest and sleeves on Benvolio, the delicate overlay of Lady Montague's dress, Olivia's second gown and wedding dress and all of Juliet's frocks: Simply amazing. (We've included some of Clinnin's costume renderings on this site, as well as a sketch of Heil's set, although you must experience the expensive-looking materials and richness of color in person to fully appreciate the craft).
And because TSF happens indoors (did we mention air-conditioning?), the costumes and sets need not stress in the Texas heat or from the frequent threat of precipitation. Not even if it raineth all day, every day.