All Shakespearean updates are not created equal

Susan Wismar (Maria), Andy Falter (Sir Toby), Jesse Massaro (Malvolio) and Adam Poe (Sir Andrew) in a scene from Twelfth Night (photo by Dale Bush)
Appearing in a scene from Twelfth Night are (from left) Susan Wismar (Maria), Andy Falter (Sir Toby), Jesse Massaro (Malvolio) and Adam Poe (Sir Andrew) (photo by Dale Bush)

By Richard Ades

There’s more than one way to update Shakespeare.

One approach, perfected by Josh Whedon’s modern-dress film version of Much Ado About Nothing, is to ignore the time period and concentrate on the story. The effect is to emphasize the timelessness of the characters and their predicaments, even if their language is a particularly flowery form of Elizabethan English.

Another approach is to use the time period and setting to add another layer of meaning to the play—for instance, by relocating Macbeth to a politically unstable part of the world.

Yet a third approach is to use the time period as a way to make the play more accessible to the average theatergoer. That’s the tack Actors’ Theatre has taken with its 1980s version of Twelfth Night.

To tell the truth, I tend to see this approach as a form of surrender. It’s like the thespians have decided it’s too hard to persuade viewers to appreciate Shakespeare for his own sake, so they add a veneer of recognizable references. It’s particularly puzzling when they apply this method to Twelfth Night, which may be the most likable of all the Bard’s comedies.

That said, it must be stated that much works just fine in the production director Mandy Fox has put together on the nifty pastel-colored set Trent Bean has designed for the Schiller Park stage.

Most importantly, Kayla Jackmon is appealing as Viola, the young woman who washes ashore in an unfamiliar land following a shipwreck. We automatically root for her as she responds to her dire situation by disguising herself as a male eunuch and going to work for the love-struck Duke Orsino (Andrew Blasenak).

Also working just fine are the comical figures we meet at the house of the noblewoman Orsino is love-struck for, Olivia (Ashley Frisch). Andy Falter is a Miami Vice-attired hoot as her drunken uncle, Toby Belch, while Adam Poe puts his short stature to humorous use as Olivia’s would-be suitor, Sir Anthony Aguecheek. In addition, Liz Light sings nicely as Olivia’s fool, Feste, and Susan Wismar earns laughs with a Valley Girl interpretation of Olivia’s conniving servant, Maria.

From a comedy standpoint, all this sounds pretty good. But the problem is that director Fox seems to have decided that everything in this updated Twelfth Night has to be played for laughs. Not only does this approach rob the tale of some charming moments, but it forces the actors to find humor in characters that aren’t meant to be funny.

In the first scene, while Viola worries that she lost twin brother Sebastian (Cornelius Hubbard Jr.) in the shipwreck, Ben Sostrom depicts the sea captain who rescued her as a fey stereotype. Needless to say, this undercuts the sadness of the moment.

Viola (Kayla Jackmon, left) unwittingly wins the love of Olivia (Ashley Frisch) while masquerading as a man in Twelfth Night (photo by Dale Bush)
Viola (Kayla Jackmon, left) unwittingly wins the love of Olivia (Ashley Frisch) while masquerading as a man in Twelfth Night (photo by Dale Bush)

Later, we’re introduced to Orsino and his ongoing attempt to woo Olivia despite her pledge to spend the next seven years mourning her late brother. In most productions, Orsino is depicted as a soulful romantic, making him a fitting target for the adoration the disguised Viola comes to feel for him. Here, though, Orsino comes across as a love-struck buffoon, making Viola’s crush seem shallow and inconsequential.

The worst part of all this is that, having played the comedy’s gentler moments for laughs, the actors are forced to up the ante by playing the more-boisterous moments for even bigger laughs. As the show goes on, some cast members over-emote in a style that seems more appropriate for the vaudeville era than the 1980s.

When Olivia falls for the young “man” Viola is impersonating, Frisch turns her into a caricature of a woman in heat. When Olivia’s dictatorial steward, Malvolio (Jesse Massaro), is fooled into thinking he’s the object of his lady’s desires, he shouts his protestations of love so loudly that you’d think he was courting someone in the next county. Then, just in case the odd audience member is still unaware that something funny is supposed to be going on, Toby and his friends take the stage decked out in Ghost Busters paraphernalia.

All this overwhelms the alternately clever and tenderly romantic tale that is Twelfth Night, which could have absorbed the 1980s pop references but can’t survive all the bombast.

“Prithee read i’ thy right wits,” Olivia pleads at one point as Feste is reading a letter out loud and making a mockery of it in the process. You can’t help wishing the director and her cast had taken her words to heart.

Actors’ Theatre will present Twelfth Night through July 28 at the amphitheater in Schiller Park, 1069 Jaeger St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Admission is free; bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or