Theater Review: ‘Twelfth Night,’ ‘Richard III,’ And ‘The Merry Wives Of Windsor’

Jul 19, 2022 at 4:14 pm
Louisville Shakespeare Festival
Louisville Shakespeare Festival

Peter Brook, who died last week, has long been hailed as the preeminent theater director of the last... oh, let’s just keep it simple and say the last century.

He was a radical, disruptive and polarizing figure whose ideas were at once both innovative and old school. And, in many ways, this season’s Kentucky Shakespeare Festival exemplifies the principles Brook expounded.

First, Brook believed that the most important ingredient in the making of great theater is time: time for a troupe to explore and experiment, time for the corps of on-and-off-stage personnel to discover what Brook called “the true unspectacular intimacy that long work and true confidence in other people brings about.”

Second, Brook believed in the power of what he called “the rough theater.” His “roughness” is a muti-faceted idea, but to single out just one aspect, he was an advocate for theater that’s performed not in the typical formal settings, but “on carts, on wagons, on trestles, audiences standing, drinking, sitting around tables, joining in, answering back; theater in back rooms, upstairs rooms, barns.”

And third, Brook had a strong notion that the audience plays an essential role in the making of great theater, not merely as passive observers but as partners in this ancient rite of communal storytelling.

All summer long, Kentucky Shakespeare has been a living example of those three ideas, first with Matt Wallace’s dazzling hot jazz-inflected production of “Twelfth Night,” then with Amy Attaway’s brilliantly insightful “Richard III” and finally with Wallace’s rollicking take on “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”

These are productions shaped by time. Over the last several years, Kentucky Shakespeare has evolved into an actor-centered theater company, with an unusually stable core group of performers, many of whom have now worked together for years — and work all year long, thanks to the company’s expanded schedule. And the Festival cast has had scripts in hand since February, by now has been rehearsing and performing together for months — and has the added benefit of working together in multiple contexts, since most cast members appear in two or more productions.

As for theater in the “rough,” Central Park is a superb example. The C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheater is surrounded by (and contains within its bounds) great looming trees. It’s in the heart of the city, where the words of Shakespeare roll amidst a backdrop of distant sirens, barking dogs, fireworks, midsummer breezes and the rumble of jet airliners overhead. In rough theater, those elements are not distractions; they’re essential. This is not an environment like the conventional modern theater space, designed to reinforce the conceit of an invisible fourth wall that divides the onstage universe from the world of the audience. Rather, it’s a shared space in every way. First, at 8 p.m., when the plays begin, the actors and audience live in the same light, and are commonly visible to one another — until dusk sets in, and gradually casts its dark magical spell across the audience.

Second, and crucially, there is the matter of sound. In the “rough” theater, both the players and the audience are aware that they share the same world, a world where everyone can hear the hoot of a barred owl or the call of a great crested flycatcher. And when a jet flies overhead during “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and an actor wins laughs and applause with an improvised funny double-triple-quadruple take to fill the space between the beginning and the end of a spoken line, it becomes an uproarious reminder that all of us are living together in the same moment in the same universe. In great theater, this is not a bug, it’s a feature. And it’s just one of the things that comes naturally when performers know one another’s work.

And finally, that sort of incident is just one of the things that builds an audience’s awareness of itself as playing its own essential role. I’ve been sitting in theaters for years where every audience reaction is rooted in the fixed conventions of an etiquette where generally any and all audience reactions are strictly controlled by the idea that neither the actors nor the audience should acknowledge the existence of the other.

But that’s not the guiding principle at Central Park — and it’s been one of the great pleasures of this summer’s season to sit amongst people whose alert interest and uninhibited enthusiasms punctuate the action with spontaneous cheers and applause.

There are, of course, lots of reasons why people attend the theater — many of them related to such a sterile sense of obligation that attending the theater is itself a kind of performance — a thing one just must do to demonstrate that one does such things. But that’s simply the corruption of a great thing. The best reason to go is to experience the thrilling moments when everyone — on and off stage — suddenly comes together in shared surprise at a new discovery – whether it’s tragic, comic, enlightening or unnerving.

It’s not customary to review audiences, of course. But the audiences this summer at the C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheater have been uncommonly responsive — which is testimony to both the work of the company and evidence that this audience has helped to build the kind of theater company it wants and deserves.

Starting this week, through July 24, you can see all three offerings (“Twelfth Night,” “Richard III” and “Merry Wives of Windsor,” running in rotation (Tuesday through Sunday), followed by two more weeks, one given over to the Globe Players (the company’s estimable professional training program for high school students) performing “Much Ado About Nothing.” And finally the Louisville Ballet’s production of “Shakespeare in Dance — As You Like It.”

I have written in detail about this summer’s startling and insightful “Richard III.” As for the two comedies in this season’s Festival, I would summarize by simply noting that in this midsummer of our American discontent, I think there is no better response (other than working directly for change) than lifting your spirits by joining together in laughter and romance, and the two comedies are spectacular.

“Twelfth Night,” directed by Matt Wallace, is set in the hot jazz milieu of New Orleans, complete with the flamboyant sounds of “The Illyrian Singers,” an ensemble that includes trombone (Allison Cross, who also leads the ensemble), tuba (May O’Nays); trumpet (Joshua Polion); drums and percussion (Elijah Smith) and Laura Ellis as singer and musician, and a sprightly selection of freshly composed songs by Greg Maupin (who plays both Feste, the jester, and the ukulele in this production). And by the way, there are glorious — GLORIOUS — glorious costumes by Donna Lawrence-Downs that all by themselves are worth taking in. The performances are as fantastic as the tale itself, which deals with two twins separated by a shipwreck, each thinking the other has perished (Mollie Murk and Zachary Burrell) who come to ground in a new land where the sister’s decision to disguise herself as a male (she resembles her brother) triggers some deliciously tangled comedy that is basically a cascade of great acting — both verbal and physical.

“The Merry Wives of Windsor,” also directed by Wallace, may be the quintessential “rough” Shakespearean comedy — especially since it is famously his one work that really focuses on “common” (hah!) rather than nobles. Besides, at its center is the single most popular character Shakespeare ever invented: Falstaff, the inveterate, irreverent trickster, debtor, crook, conniver and purveyor of earthy realistic philosophy. We know from historical accounts that Falstaff was the most popular character in Shakespeare’s own time (and indeed there is a tale that Shakespeare was required to write this play because Queen Elizabeth herself wanted more Falstaff).

As for me, I think Falstaff is the most “modern” character Shakespeare ever invented, and here his indefatigable energy is finely captured by Brian Hinds. There are two plotlines in this play.

Front and center is Falstaff’s plot to repair his fortunes by seducing a woman. To double his chances of success, he thinks to himself, “Why not seduce two?” So he sends identical missives to two of Shakespeare’s most formidable women: Missus Ford (Abigail Bailey Maupin) and Missus Page (Jennifer Pennington). And when they compare notes... Ach, the things Falstaff endures, and even worse are the humiliations Mr. Ford endures when he suspects his wife of cheating on him, and then sets out to catch her in the act.

And there’s more. In the other plotline three very different men — one rich, one a physician and scholar and one a true romantic — seek the hand of Miss Anne Page (Ashley Nicole Cabrera) and each of them has an advocate: Anne’s father (Keith McGill) wants her to marry the money; her mother wants her to marry the doctor; and Anne yearns for romance.

Serving as hired go-between and matchmaker for all the candidates and their advocates is Mistress Quickly (a foil to Falstaff across his Shakespearian trajectory and in some other plays of that era). Here it turns out that Quickly is exquisitely positioned to profit from all the suitors — no matter which wins Anne’s hand. And it turns out that Georgette Kleier is an exquisite Quickly, playing the role with the kind of polished brassy comic energy you might expect from Carol Burnett.

All of this action is enhanced by beautifully integrated Renaissance music (Russell Cooper, music director). This is one of the great and enduring absurdist madcap comedies in the history of our language — and it is (like many of Shakespeare’s plays — including “Richard III” ) animated by the spirit, wit, and intelligence of the women Shakespeare wrote for us.

For students and lovers of acting, these three plays can serve as an academy in themselves. During the history cycle that concludes with this season’s “Richard III,” Kentucky Shakespeare published a graphic designed to help audiences keep track of the intricate genealogies and alliances that shaped the dynastic politics of the War of the Roses. It would be a fine thing in the future to supplement the program listings with the same sort of graphic for the performers who appear across Festival lineup — if only so audiences could more easily track the astonishing range and virtuosity of the members of this troupe.

From now until the end of their runs, you can do that yourself. For instance, you could watch how Braden McCampbell transitions from the noble lovestruck Orsino of “Twelfth Night” to become both murderer and hero in “RIII” and finally a pedantic parson in “MWW.” You might take note Brittany “BeeBee” Patillo’s deftly smitten Olivia in “TN,” clarity of purpose as RIII’s political ally Catesby, and of RIII’s effective political allies, and Falstaff’s not-so-loyal comical aide in “MWW.”

You might focus on Gregory Maupin’s shifts: not only was he instrumental (note: pun) in the editing and music of the plays, he also plays the colorfully clad musical jester in “TN,” then Richard’s self-serving, cynical enabler in “RIII,” and finally gives an outrageously funny performance in “MWW” as the husband so obsessed with his suspicions about his wife’s fidelity that he engineers his own series of humiliations. You could track Jon Huffman’s transformations from the self-regarding Malvolio in “TN” through the wounded, weakened pathos of King Edward IV in “RIII,” and then to one of the comic capstones of the season, his French-inflected Doctor Caius in “MWW.”

In a troupe generously stocked with vivid performances, it seems small to single out only a few, but for me, one of the highlights of this season is the interplay of Abigail Bailey Maupin and Jennifer Pennington. Both had fine turns in “TN.” But both were brilliant in “RIII,” Maupin as the grief-maddened Margaret and Pennington as the embittered mother of the King she wishes had never been born. And as the ever-so-sly and ever-so-Merry Wives of Windsor they are diabolically funny.

Basically, to sum up: If you haven’t already seen these productions, you should. And if you have, you should return. I’ve seen the plays evolve over time, and from now through the end of the run, I think you have the opportunity to see the best theater Louisville has witnessed in many, many years. •

These offerings from the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival run in rotation through July 24 at C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheater in Central Park. Check the schedule and see them all. It’s free.

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