Review: Company of Fools’ Twelfth Night takes a tepid turn

Kate Smith as and Mary Ellis as XX in Twelfth Night by A Company of Fools. Photo: Andrew Alexander

Small wonder Twelfth Night is considered one of Shakespeare’s best comedies.

Its plot-line of love, gender confusion and general chaos, which is kicked off when Viola, shipwrecked, washes up on the shores of Illyria and disguises herself as a man named Cesario, is superbly comic and deliciously self-aware.

The play’s depiction of love – its uncontrollable nature, its inevitable complications, and its power to enrich whoever it touches – is timeless and true as Shakespeare pulls Viola, Illyria’s Countess Olivia and Duke Orsino, and others into the mix of romance and passion.

And the comeuppance of Olivia’s priggish steward Malvolio, a highlight of the play, turns out to be more complex than we had bargained for, involving a painful humiliation that can leave us disquieted for having laughed at this man.

All that being the case, why is  this Company of Fools’ production, directed by Bronwyn Steinberg, so uninspiring?

It’s not for want of trying. Catherine Rainville as Viola is committed to her role. Ditto the others, including Garrett Quirk as the heart-on-his-sleeve Orsino and as Olivia’s dipsomaniacal uncle Sir Toby Belch (all the actors except Rainville play multiple characters).

And it’s not for want of determination to make the play speak to an audience in 2018. Already a bit of a gender bender – what with Olivia falling in love with Cesario, who’s really a woman who’s fallen for Orsino, who’s puzzled by the attentiveness of what seems to be a young man – Steinberg has upped the play’s gender ante by casting mostly female actors. That includes turning Malvolio into Malvolia (the Royal National Theatre in London, England did the same thing last year) and having Mary Ellis play her as a closet lesbian.

Problem is, the production has no focus. More like a series of loosely connected vignettes than the exquisitely structured play that Shakespeare wrote, Steinberg’s Twelfth Night drifts from scene to scene with no discernible dramatic arc.

Tension – and can you think of anything more tension-wrought than love? – is almost non-existent. As a result, events and characters never have the opportunity to deepen, let alone make us care about very much them, by playing off each other.

The word “boring” does come to mind.

Equally disappointing, the production, which also features Kate Smith and Tamara Freeman, fatally subordinates fun, wit and foolishness – all traditional hallmarks of A Company of Fools – to a kind of pseudo-comic earnestness about gender.  Turning Malvolio into Malvolia, for instance, is an opportunity for a fresh take on a well-known character. But here it feels like a stodgy idea imposed by an interpretation of the play rather than one that grows naturally from the script.

To give the production its due (and to ignore its other failings, including lame, synth-pop musical numbers and some low-energy dancing), there are a few highlights.

While Quirk’s Sir Toby Belch is a clichéd drunk, his Orsino is a man attuned to his own inner life and willing to express it. One sees why Viola, who carefully takes the measure of others and seeks truthfulness, would fall for him.

And Kate McArthur does a fine job in multiple roles, especially Sebastian, who was separated from his twin sister in the shipwreck and, like her, made it to the shores of Illyria. McArthur is a vibrant performer, and her Sebastian – a bit of a goof who one can imagine fronting a perpetually unknown rock band – carves out a distinct place in the show.

Overall, though, distinctive is not an adjective one would apply to this summer’s Fools’ production.

Twelfth Night continues until Aug. 18 at parks in and around Ottawa. It was reviewed Monday, July 17. Information & tickets.

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.