Bard on the Beach’s Twelfth Night

Bard on the Beach opened its 35th season with Shakespeare’s gender mix-up tale Twelfth Night or What You Will. This romp is a comedic staple, with only A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It performed more often.

The play lends itself well to adaptation, especially in musical theatre. It is no surprise that the original scores composed by Veda Hille add extra layers of emotion, depth and revelry to Shakespeare’s witty words. “If music be the food of love,” there is plenty of it.

Bard on the Beach’s Twelfth Night

Director Diana Donnelly has conjured up the carnival village of Illyria as the dreamscape for her rendition. The “twelfth night” coincides with the eve of Epiphany, where convention and propriety are temporarily suspended. What better place to let loose than a circus? The audience is asked to pretend all logic is temporarily suspended within this concept.

Set designer Pam Johnston has transformed the BMO Mainstage into a whimsical colour spectacle. Festive pennants are strung across the entire tent while nostalgic touches like a twinkling High Striker game, a Bulls-Eye wheel and kaleidoscopesque lighting by Sophie Tang invoke the amusement park vibe. A goofy swan boat gets the most laughs.

Dawn Petten
[Dawn Petten]

Mara Gottler’s richly extravagant costumes, an ambitious marriage of the steampunk aesthetic with carnival flamboyance, adds another flourish to the ambiance.

The show opens with all players crooning a catchy anthem about all the joys in Illyria. We soon learn that the sparkling façade is an illusion because the great magician “Duke” Orsino (Aiden Correia) lamentably pines after the circus belle, “Countess” Olivia (Olivia Hutt). He is not the only suitor as Olivia’s drunken uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Marcus Youssef) urges his friend, a rich patron named Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Nathan Kay), on his niece.

Munish Sharma, Nadeem Phillip, Umar Khitab, Christine Quintana
[Munish Sharma, Nadeem Phillip, Umar Khitab, Christine Quintana]

Olivia rejects all their advances because she is still in mourning over the death of both her brother and father. She swears that she will not entertain any thoughts of marriage until seven years have passed.

Elsewhere, a ship has wrecked upon the shores of Illyria. A set of twins, Viola and her brother Sebastien (Charlie Gallant) have both survived but were separately rescued and think the other has perished.

Viola decides that it is safer to disguise herself as a man in order to find employment in the carnival. She calls herself Cesario and soon becomes Orsino’s favourite confidante.

Entrusting her with his love suit, Orsino sends Viola/Cesario to Olivia to plead his case. Problem is Viola has fallen passionately in love with Orsino! Despite her protestations, Olivia, in turn, absurdly falls for Viola in her male guise!

Marcus Youssef, Evelyn Chew
[Marcus Youssef, Evelyn Chew]

The mayhem of this ludicrous love triangle is spurred on by the party-loving circus crew led by Olivia’s personal assistant, Maria (Evelyn Chew), the irreverent clown, Feste (Anton Lipovetsky) and the imposing Andrew Wheeler as the ringmaster.

Their riotous merry-making sparks the ire of Olivia’s prudish stage manager, Malvolia (Dawn Petten) who threatens to tattle to Olivia. The cunning Maria quickly devises a prank to punish Mavolia for spoiling their fun. She plants a false love letter from Olivia to dupe Mavolia into believing that the Countess loves her. A madcap fracas ensues as the lovestruck Mavolia expounds such an enthusiastic expression of her affections that it must be seen to be believed!

Just as we think the chaos could not get more ridiculous, Viola’s twin, Sebastian, arrives with his outlaw rescuer, Antonia (Ivy Charles).

Camille Legg, Aidan Correia
[Camille Legg, Aidan Correia]

On opening night, a focused portrayal of Viola was delivered by the talented Kate Besworth. Artistic director Christopher Gaze later revealed that Camilla Legg, who normally stars as Viola, was not able to perform and Besworth, a consummate professional, was tapped to fill the role only the night before.

As the understudy, Besworth had not yet rehearsed with the entire company, which made her admirable performance all the more impressive. Charles Gallant (Sebastian) and Aiden Correia (Orsino) made the most of their minutes on stage, playing opposite Besworth. Although main characters, their roles were somewhat upstaged by the elevated subplot while some minor characters dazzled under the big top.

The gaudily attired duo of Marcus Youssef (Belch) and Nathan Kay (Aguecheek) are the master clowns of the circus, dispatching precisely-timed antics both onstage and amongst the audience. Kay’s comedic flair seems effortless as he delivers an Aguecheek that resembles a boastful, brave chihuahua.

Olivia Hutt, Charlie Gallant
[Olivia Hutt, Charlie Gallant]

The self-deprecating clown Feste weaves on and off set with songs and punchlines, but Anton Lipovetsky is a commanding presence every time he makes an appearance. He plays the fool but there is no foolery in his mastery of the role. Olivia Hutt’s emotion-filled vocals are rich and melodious.

My brother, a Bard first-timer, joined me at this show. Despite the lavish set, outstanding performances and upbeat music, this adaptation somehow felt disheartening and disjointed. I did not know why until my brother asked, “Why is everyone so mean to Malvolia?”

Shakespeare’s original Malvolio is a narcissistic, grandiloquent and contemptuous character whose self-importance leads him to believe that Olivia would want to marry him. He rightly deserves to be punished severely by Olivia’s persecuted court.

Olivia Hutt, Dawn Petten
[Olivia Hutt, Dawn Petten]

As righteous observers, the audience should feel some satisfaction when villains get their just desserts. However, witness Dawn Petten in her element; she is an ebullient, irrepressible physical comedy maven. Petten’s Malvolia is simply too effervescent to be villainous. She comes across as a devoted, but giddy, lovestruck servant, pining for her employer’s affection.

Malvolia’s mildly churlish attempt to enforce order did not warrant the cruel mistreatment and humiliation – played up for audience laughter as “The Mavolia Show”. There is no villainy here; just a bunch of bullies. While I enjoyed the creative re-imaginings of this production, the pitiable Malvolia did not fit comfortably into the show.

Twelfth Night continues at Bard on the Beach through September 21, alternating with Hamlet on the BMO Mainstage.

Photos by Tim Matheson.

About Our Contributor Cora Li

Cora Li

Cora dabbles in arts, technology, food, and travel. She loves that Vancouver offers a vast playground for exploring all of her passions. Cora’s most memorable job to date was working with VANOC during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

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