By Helen Meade
Pittsburgh Classic Players opened their first full season of plays with an appropriately-timed production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night…on Twelfth Night (Friday, January 5, 2019) in the Spartan Community Center, in the space formerly occupied by St. Stephen’s school in Hazelwood.
This repurposed venue is fitting for PCP’s productions, as it meets their goal of making theater for Pittsburgh by Pittsburghers, and it is well-suited to the PCP aesthetic of low-tech storytelling. Brett Sullivan Santry, a PCP co-founder and the stage director for Twelfth Night, notes that this production upholds the company’s commitment bringing theater to a Pittsburgh neighborhood where it has been absent for decades. Santry is a proud Pittsburgh native and Hazelwood resident himself and is especially pleased to call the Spartan Community Center of Hazelwood PCP’s new creative home.
Twelfth Night is always a good night at the theatre. It has all of the things we love about Shakespeare – twisting, turning plot lines; confusion; twins; gender-fluidity; pratfalls; fights; drunken singing and dancing; love and hate; revenge….all of it. And although it is billed as one of Shakespeare’s comedies, the undertow of melancholy throughout coupled with the ambivalent ending afford a pathos to the play that frequently take it out of the realm of comedy into something different.
However, PCP’s production of Twelfth Night leans more towards the comedy and relies less on the pathos. Their pacing is quicksilver fast, gamboling from one scene to the next, never needlessly lingering. This makes for a high energy production—one can easily partake in the general sense of joy the actors exude in their performances.
There is no particular “concept” or director-driven theme to this production. It is a simple, no-frills presentation of the original text. This has both effective and not-so-effective results. The good: there are no tricks, no twisting of the material to conform to some esotericism. On the other hand, I found most of the actors’ performances to only skim the surface of their character, never really developing depth and complexity. The question left unanswered by this production, is if one must give up depth to enhance pacing and simplicity?
There are several fun elements in Santry’s staging of Twelfth Night. All of the songs in the show are cleverly set to modern, recognizable holiday music (my favorite being the incorporation of “The Grinch” theme). This production features a Feste, played by Zev Woskoff, who actually plays the piano, and, thus, quite ably accompanies his own singing. Santry embraces the sexual ambiguity that is inherent in the girl-disguises-herself-as-boy-but-it’s-more-complicated-than-that plot that Shakespeare created. Santry’s ending (which I will not spoil) is funny and satisfying, so much so in fact, that I only wished that he had played with the ideas even more throughout the play. The play’s fight choreographer, Jonathan Visser, creates some really effective and engaging sword fights, combining just the right amount of comedy and danger.
PCP’s company is comprised of actors at various stages in their careers, and of varying skill levels as actors, specifically actors of Shakespeare. The differences that result from this mixture are obvious in the performances, which does impact the cohension of the whole.
That being said, there are several stand out performances of the production. Foremost is Charles Beikert’s drunken Sir Toby Belch. Full of aplomb, Beikert’s performance is sure-footed, steady in its unsteadiness. He underplays Toby’s cruelty and focuses on his canniness. He creates an anchor for the show, and makes me greatly anticipate his future Falstaffs. Chad Bender as Sebastian is robustly masculine, confident, and funny, and makes me long for more scenes with Sebastian. Sebastian’s twin, Viola/Cesario, played by Christine McGrath, is a sweet counterpoint with her youthful, wide-eyed portrayal. She is likable and bubbly; full of enthusiasm and energy. Shannon Knapp plays Olivia with intelligence, and Elizabeth Farina is charming as Maria. Additionally, both Andrew Miller (as Malvolio) and Tom Kolos (as Orsino) give confident performances, bringing light touches to the heavier characters of the piece. Katie Crandol makes for an interesting Antonio, and it is quite fun to watch Hazel Leroy having a good time as both Sea Captain and the drunken, often somnolent Fabian.
In line with their no-frills aesthetic, there is not much production flair to speak of for the show. There is a piano on stage – which the audience has to embrace, as it is there for the entire show and all of the scenes, both indoors and outdoors. In terms of set design, there is a lovely painted backdrop of a winter forest scene with matching stage borders. This backdrop is one-dimensional and old-fashioned, and really is perfect for the space, complete with beautiful colors and details. The lighting is merely a general stage wash. There are challenges still to overcome in order to create an effective general lighting plot, but I expect the company will address these challenges as they settle into the space.
There are some wonderfully detailed costumes put together by costume designer Carmel Clavin, even though an exact time period is not completely clear in these costume choices. The suits for Orsino and Malvolio are particularly well done, as are the costumes worn by Sebastian and Cesario. The only real misstep—and it is a doozy of a misstep—is Olivia’s costume, which muddied the sense of time period even more, as it was too long, and did not assist the actress with character expression or movement.
Twelfth Night is always a Shakespeare piece worth seeing, and I think PCP’s imperfect but spirited production adds to the Twelfth Night Pittsburgh canon nicely. I might even have to see it a second time.
Pittsburgh Classic Players’ Twelfth Night runs weekends through January 27, 2019. There will also be special pay-what-you-may industry night performances on January 14 and 21. All performances take place at the Spartan Community Center of Hazelwood, located at 134 East Elizabeth Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15207. For tickets, visit www.pittsburghclassicplayers.com.
Helen Meade got her first theater job at age 17. Over the many intervening years she has worked professionally as an actor, singer, director, producer, administrator, production manager, stage manager, lighting designer, technician, fundraiser, and board member. Through it all, one thing has always remained true: Helen loves live theater. Some of her favorite projects include her educational adaptation, Supernatural Shakespeare, for Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust Arts Education Department, directing Romeo and Juliet for PSIP, and directing the world premiere of composer Jeremy Beck’s The Biddle Boys and Mrs. Soffel for Tuesday Musical Club.
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