A year and a half ago, Jillian Keiley, the Artistic Director of English Theatre at the National Arts Centre, asked Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop to collaborate on a production of one of Shakespeare’s most loved comedies – Twelfth Night. However, she wanted them to imagine the play without puppets. As the Old Trouts say in the program, “We don’t typically design shows with actual living actors in them” but they decided to take the plunge. I’m glad they did. Their abundant creativity has given us a delightful production. First and foremost, the NAC’s Twelfth Night is Shakespeare for people who don’t like Shakespeare or who aren’t familiar with Shakespeare.
The reaction of the opening night audience was enthusiastic. Given their excited exclamations, it was obvious that some were surprised by the plot. And there was plenty of loud laughter, as well as spontaneous applause at funny bits of business and at several smooches in the final scenes. The scenery also drew applause – deservedly.
Ah yes, the scenery! The Old Trouts channeled Terry Gilliam, the brilliant cartoonist member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, to create the most marvellous movable sets, props and costumes. These were even more delightful than the sets of 2014’s Alice Through the Looking Glass. It’s worth the price of admission just to see the sets. Even the set changes between scenes are amusing.
Twelfth Night is about the madness of lovesickness, about being “crazy for love”.
The acting, while uniformly broad, is generally good. The actors seem to be comfortable speaking Shakespearean lines, though it appears that Keiley directed them to play their roles with vaudevillian extravagance, and to give less weight to their words than their actions.
Five of the actors stand out. First on stage is Kayvon Kelly as the Fool, Feste. He wears an obscene onesie that reminds me of one of the sperm in Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex… A quite good singer, he sings pop songs from the 1980s and 1990s that comment on the action. Alison Woolridge as Maria and Paula-Jean Prudat as Fabienne are excellent comediennes. I’d love to see them in more plays. Paul Rainville is terrific as the dipsomaniacal Sir Toby Belch. But then, Rainville excels at every role he attempts. Alex McCooeye is absolutely hilarious as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the doltish knight. He has a gift for delivering funny lines with exquisite body language – he’s like a young Hugh Laurie in Blackadder.
The actors playing most of the major characters – Count Orsino, Viola, Sebastian and Olivia – are believable in their roles. Janelle Cooper as Viola doesn’t always enunciate her lines clearly, but this might have been due to opening night nerves.
However, Bruce Dow is miscast or perhaps misdirected as the key character, Malvolio. Dow is a jolly comedian whose Malvolio starts out as a conceited buffoon and changes into… a ridiculous conceited buffoon. Unfortunately, he’s not credible as a rigid Puritan who is transformed midway through the play into a fool for love when he’s tricked into believing that Lady Olivia carries a flame for him.
Nevertheless, the magic wrought by Old Trout Puppet Workshop makes Twelfth Night a night to remember.
Twelfth Night is at the NAC Theatre until Feb.6, 2016. It’s approximately 2 hours long, with no intermission. Because of the occasional lewd joke or gesture, the play is suitable for older teenagers but not for children. Tickets are available online or at the NAC box office.