Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, reimagined by The Old Trout Puppet Workshop- Theatre Calgary

The cast of Theatre Calgary’s Twelfth Night, Photo by Trudie Lee

Sitting in the Max Bell theatre, the audience stares at the gigantic blue house curtain. We sit in excited anticipation, knowing there’s a sumptuous visual feast of Old Trout magic hiding just behind that heavy wall of fabric. Then, suddenly, the folds of the curtains begin to flap and flutter. Eventually finding the centre split, a disoriented Feste emerges dressed head to toe in off-white Victorian long underwear (complete with bum-flap and footsies), a crescent shaped cockscomb bonnet strapped to his head. He’s surprised- “This is NOT the bathroom”, and with one look at the giggling audience, he scrambles back behind the curtain- “Ok everybody, showtime! Put your pants back on”!

The house lights dim and our attention is drawn to the glow of the old time footlights perched inconspicuously at the lip of the stage. As the house curtain is lifted, we are transported into the magnificent technicolor world of the Old Trouts’ Twelfth Night. An intricate Baroque-style proscenium arch occupies most of the stage, framing a two dimensional world exploding with colour and comedy. On either side of the gilded arch is an asortment of classic backstage paraphernalia. More players in pj’s appear to operate the weights and pulleys which control the scenery flats flying into view. The nautical picture is complete as they hoist the theatrical rigging which brings a cartoon sea-scape to life within the arch. Pitching and tossing on the waves is a splendid ship, carrying twins Viola and Sebastian into a sea storm which will separate the pair and set them on their respective paths through this strange new land- “This is Illyria, lady”.

The first 15 minutes of the show is bursting with enchanting spectacle. Elaborate sea monsters emerge from the two dimensional depths, Neptune rides in on his fish-puppet steed, and Viola and her rescuer burst forth onto shore through a door hidden in the painted wooden waves. In this world of mayhem and silliness, puppets are as dynamic as human characters and human characters are sketched out with cartoon-like simplicity. Both are at their best when one is hardly distinguishable from the other.

Unsurprisingly, the real delight of the production lies in its visual story-telling. It’s as if our favorite Monty Python animations have joined a cast of Black Adder characters in a life-sized pop-up book where (almost) everyone speaks in verse.

Layers of flats create the various landscapes and great houses of Illyria.  They fly in from above and wheel in from the side wings, forcing the actors downstage towards the footlights and onto a shallow plane not unlike the playing space of a bijoux music hall. Though classic music hall style is difficult to master, most actors rise to the challenge and play to the strengths of this timeless genre by banishing the fourth wall and addressing the audience as much as possible. The nostalgic glow of the footlights helps to further focus our attention as light is thrown upon the figures directly in front of us. It dissipates towards the upstage space, creating the illusion that nothing exists beyond the back-most scenery flat.

Shakespeare is secondary in this reimagining and although the text has been drastically cut to accommodate a 110 minute running time, the visual story-telling makes up for the gaps. Credit is certainly due to the actors for tackling the multi-tasking challenge of delivering some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful late verse whilst also operating intricate puppets and scenery.

Christopher Hunt as the lanky, dim-witted dandy Sir Andrew Aguecheek, provides a masterclass in characterization. Each choice is simultaneously true to Shakespeare’s text and perfectly suited to the pop-up book music hall à la Trout. Hunt’s Sir Andrew is both absurdly silly and effortlessly pitiable, melting our hearts and cramping our sides with laughter. He capers nimbly in his buckled shoes, fabulous wig and powder-white face (complete with beauty spot), and for this reviewer, absolutely steals the show.

Janelle Cooper’s open hearted Viola brings joy to each scene with her kindness and strength. A change to the text allows Viola to serenade the Count Orsino (whom she secretly loves) and we are as bewitched as Tyrell Crews’ love-sick Count by her  “mellifluous voice- Very sweet and contagious i’faith”.

Bruce Dow, who also associate directs the production, is irresistibly pathetic as the steward Malvolio. His exchanges with Feste are marvellously uncomfortable as Feste, played by Kayvon Khoshkam with the dry, irreverent wit of a signature Shakespearean fool, constantly interjects with well-placed contemporary ad-libs to the audience…and for some reason can’t restrain himself from humping Malvolio’s leg.

The production as a whole handles the text of Shakespeare’s most well-known comedy loosely, but the story has a lightness to it which ultimately works in its favour. Though some performances tend towards over simplified, restoration theatre-style stereotypes, Julie Orton’s fun-loving Fabienne is a breath of fresh air amidst the more hysterical characters as she delivers her difficult prose with clarity and class.

Ultimately, The Trouts are masters of creating magical visual “bits” and the audience buzzed with chatter as we left the theatre- “I loved that bit with the tiny boat! And what about that bit with the portrait, or Orsino’s reveal in that bit with the bathtub”! This Illyria is different to any Twelfth Night you have ever seen, or are likely to see again, and in so many refreshing and joyful ways. Each audience member is sure to take away something wonderful from this smorgasbord of creative showmanship.

Old Trout Workshop’s Twelfth Night plays at the Max Bell Theatre in Calgary’s Arts Commons until February 24th. Tickets at theatrecalgary.com. Please note this production has no intermission. 

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