April 19, 2019

Shakespeare festival under way ‘Twelfth Night,’ ‘Two Masters’ actors give spirited performances

If you think you minded the rainy weather in the early part of July, think of the actors and directors for the Maine Shakespeare Festival. During the bout of rain, rehearsals were trounced by water throughout the much-needed rehearsal time on the outdoor stage on Bangor’s waterfront. The final dress for “King Lear” was canceled because of a relentless downpour the middle of last week. “Servant of Two Masters,” this year’s non-Shakespeare offering, kicked off in spite of spitting rain, and at least one actor had to wear her sneakers because the stage was soppingly slippery.

A sigh of relief couldn’t be breathed until the last dress rehearsal of “Twelfth Night,” when the coveted sun finally, finally, finally set over the stage. The ground was squishy wet and somewhere in the middle of the performance, thunder distantly rumbled. But it was officially a safe run, and the annual Maine Shakespeare Festival jumped into the spotlight for an eighth year.

The following review is based on the final dress rehearsals for the two comedies: Carlo Goldoni’s “Servant of Two Masters” and Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” A review for “King Lear” is planned for sometime next week. While it seems like a dangerous proposition to review shows as they are still getting on their feet, the productions were among the least clumsy and most spirited final dress rehearsals I’ve ever seen.

“Servant of Two Masters,” directed by Matthew Arbour, is perhaps one of the most professional productions the festival has ever mounted. The timing is sharp, the acting is expert, and the cast works seamlessly as an ensemble. As with Goldoni, who wanted to eliminate the hamming that had taken over commedia dell’arte works in the 18th century, Arbour smartly limits the ham factor by getting the actors to focus on the language. The story, which is aptly adapted by Constance Congdon, is a variation on the theme of mistaken identity, except it’s more complicated than that.

The servant Truffaldino, who bears the play’s title, is hired by Beatrice, who dresses in men’s clothing as she enters Venice, where she hopes to find her lover, who is in hiding because he has committed a murder. The heart of the story is the illegal juggling Truffaldino does between two masters who, themselves, are juggling between bits of misinformation. Woven into all of this are several romances that get pinched and prodded before everyone ends up with just the right lover. You’ll be asked to suspend disbelief in ridiculous ways, but you will be more than happy to do it.

This is largely because Arbour shows the restraint of confidence. He knows he does not have to deliver wisecracks with a drumroll, and his actors work the audience with a lightly impish and very winning manner. It helps that the cast is becomingly balanced, with festive leadership provided by J. Fitz Harris as Truffaldino, Collene Frashure Torres as Beatrice, Sara Valentine as Smeraldina, Jennifer Dennis as Clarice, Alex Gunn as Silvio, Ben Reigel as the lover Florinda, and Jay Doolittle as Pantalone.

Costume designer Ginger Phelps, and undoubtedly her assistant Gabby D’Italia, play no small role here or in “Twelfth Night.” Both plays are set in Italy, but Phelps creates two separate worlds both marked by colorful designs and combinations. Her able eye creates stripes and frills with the exact right balance – not too showy, not too chintzy.

While Arbour’s piece shows deft restraint, Patricia Riggin’s “Twelfth Night” is antic, vivacious and madcap. This is another story of mistaken identity and romance, and it, too, lends itself to circus-style acting. Indeed, Riggin sees the world of Venice here as crazy in a hubba-hubba-hubba kind of way. And her vision works, especially since the actors go all out when it comes to shenanigans and silliness. Audiences love this sort of shtick, and it is, after all, very entertaining.

The large cast was still finding its way at the final dress, but it’s a sure thing that the biggest laughs will go to the goofball gags of Kenny Volock as Sir Toby Belch, Alex Gunn as Aguecheek, Sharon Zolper as Maria, Michael Weiselberg as Fabian, and J. Fitz Harris as Feste. Of the lot, Harris shows admirable subtlety as an actor, and a profound and lovely simplicity as a singer.

Jennifer McEwen’s Viola, whose search for her ill-fated brother is central to the plot, is somewhat studied but filled with spunk. Ben Reigel, as Orsino, strikes just the right note with his serious yet tender demeanor, and Kathleen Cooney’s Olivia is both intelligent and wry. As Malvolio, who gets badly mistreated first as a joke and then as an outsider, Jay Doolittle mugs too much and misses, for me, the depth of that character’s situation.

Which leads me to a final overall conjecture about the play. While I appreciate Riggin’s merrymaking approach, I tend to read “Twelfth Night” with a little less hyperbole, slapstick and hijinks. The underbelly of these interwoven stories carries a dark comedy that draws disturbing parallels between madness and romance and leaves one character on the fringes of everyone else’s bliss. For me, it’s not exactly Edenic by the last scene, and two of Malvolio’s final comments – “Madam, you have done me wrong, notorious wrong” and “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” – echo eerily in my head. I would have liked to see him played not humorlessly, but with a bit more appreciation for the outcast’s place in a happily-ever-after ending.

Next up is “King Lear,” which, along with “The Little Prince” at the Opera House, will surely make this quartet of performances one of the hottest tickets for theater in the state for summer. The point is: Go. Laugh. Bring a pillow.

The Maine Shakespeare Festival will run through Aug. 18 at the Bangor Waterfront. For information, call 942-3333.

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