‘Twelfth Night’: Letting the good times roll
by DAVID MILLSTONE Special to the Democrat4 days ago
Do you go to a play by Shakespeare anticipating that you will want to tap your foot or clap with the music?
This time, maybe you should. The Oklahoma Shakespearean Festival’s upcoming 2009 production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” or laissez les bons temps rouler, is infused by the high energy and rhythms of the popular, Dallas-Fort Worth area Cajun-Zydeco band, “The Crawdaddies,” who are coming up to Durant to perform one of the “most unusual jobs” they’ve done in a career that has thrived 25 years, according to the band’s guitarist, Tom Cherry.
The Crawdaddies play familiar Cajun and Zydeco songs before, during and after the show, and the songs are integral to it.
Director Aaron Adair has set “Twelfth Night” in 1870s Louisiana, a place and time that well suits one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies — as popular with modern day American audiences as much as with Elizabethan audiences, in no small part because it’s broad humor is easier than many other of Shakespeare’s plays for modern day audiences to understand.
Of course, setting the play in a different time period — and with different music — than Shakespeare put it in, is an obvious creative liberty Adair has taken. But Shakespeare’s original version is also full of popular music.
Shakespeare strove to entertain audiences — which fully included working men and women with little or no education as well as the lettered upper classes — and he succeeded in no small part through music.
Adair means his production of “Twelfth Night” to capture the popular, festive air that was Shakespeare’s aim. By straying slightly from Shakespeare in a literal way, Adair hopes to get back to intentions, in spirit. The Crawdaddies are central to Adair’s idea.
“‘Twelfth Night’ is an audience favorite because of the music,” says Adair. “Shakespeare fills the play with popular songs of his day, to which audiences could sing along. Shakespeare took care to include lyrics of the era and culture. So, I’m using music of the era and culture of Cajun Louisiana.”
The band will interact most significantly with the character of Feste, the “Fool” who is wiser than most of the “wise” men around him, and who frequently conveys his wisdom through song.
The musicians also take their cues from Orsino, the love-drunk lord who pines without end for the unreachable Olivia, who’s brother has recently died and has sworn-off men.
The area of the stage belonging to The Crawdaddies is a street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, in which they’ll look very much at home.
Playing the accordian will be George Ramphrey, with Hugo Chambers on washboard and Tom Cherry on guitar.
“Twelfth Night” and New Orleans are a better fit than you might think at first glance. Shakespeare set his comedy in the country of Illyria, which, during Shakespeare’s day, was a real place located in what is now the Balkans. But the resonance with “delirium” was probably quite deliberate by him.
All of the characters in “Twelfth Night” (with the possible exception of Feste) are quite mad, distracted by love, and/or cross-dressing and tricking one another out of money and sanity, all of which is activity perfectly fit for both the Christmas festival of “Twelfth Night,” which preceded the Epiphany in Shakespeare’s day, and the festival of Mardi Gras, which precedes Lent, in our own day.
“Epiphany was a huge celebration for the Elizabethans,” said Adair. “Complete with masks and a Feast of Fools. Identity switching was part of the ‘Twelfth Night’ celebration, to which Mardi Gras also lends itself.”
Anyone who has seen men in drag, drinking and singing in the streets of New Orleans, will recognize truth in the comparison of identity switching in “Twelfth Night” and Mardi Gras.
This production of “Twelfth Night” also strives to recreate Shakespeare’s emphasis on entertaining audiences by heightening the comedic elements of the show in a way that other modern day productions might or might not do.
The play is a “romantic comedy,” in which either the romance or the comedy can predominate.
Mindful that Shakespeare’s audiences had been raised on, and loved, comedy that originated in the Middle Ages and flourished in both pastoral plays and Commedia dell’arte, Adair has definitely balanced his production toward the comedy.
The Commedia elements are especially visible.
Commedia dell’arte is a form of theater, which originated in Italy and featured inspired, off-the-cuff improvisation by a small troupe of actors.
Commedia performances involved short sketches around characters who were well-known stereotypes — for example, the cowardly soldier, the clever servant, and the skin flint master with a roaming eye — all of which one can see in many Shakespearean characterizations.
It is also full of slapstick, puns and double entendre
You’re more familiar with Commedia, and thus with Adair’s handling of Shakespeare, than you might know: much of the comedy to which we’re exposed on television, both in sitcoms and sketch shows, is Commedia at heart.
Both “I Love Lucy” and “Saturday Night Live” owe their existence to Commedia.
Adair’s biggest challenge in transposing Shakespeare’s version of “Twelfth Night,” or What You Will, into “Twelfth Night,” or laissez les bons temps rouler, was handling the variety of southern dialects audiences will hear actors speak.
The rhythms French-English Cajun, New Orleans Yat, and “classical ol’ time southern,” sometimes do and do not gibe well with Shakespeare’s rhythms.
“The dialect both works for and rubs against the text. The dialect has to be heightened just as the language itself is,” said Adair. Working with theatrical dialects, “actors need to project and articulate. We have to take liberties, for instance, by keeping our final consonants, or we can’t be understood, otherwise ... But, audiences can still suspend disbelief because they come into the theater with an expectation for heightening already there.
Hearing Cajun English coming out of a lord’s mouth at the top of the show disarms the audience. Then we need to continue to make the dialects funny and understandable.”
Adair’s hope is that with live music by the Crawdaddies, the colorful setting of 1870s Louisiana and the revival of Commedia elements will, above all, entertain Durant audiences, even those audience members may have a very different and dull experience of Shakespeare still lingering in the back of their minds.
“I hope that multiple meanings are found in the play,” Adair said. “But, if it’s fun, then the play has been served, because I think that’s what Shakespeare would have wanted.”
Writer David Millstone plays Malvolio, the egotistical steward who is tricked into believing his master loves him, in OSF’s 2009 production of the play.
(published in The Durant Daily Democrat, July 2009)