Encore Michigan

Pigeon Creek delivers a tasty Twelfth Night

Review November 11, 2019 Bridgette Redman

LANSING, Mich.–Those who complain that Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t funny probably haven’t seen Pigeon Creek Shakespeare perform one.

This company, with its intimate spaces, cross-gendered casting and willingness to interact with the audience, creates a warm energy that is nearly irresistible. This is especially true when, as they are from now until Nov. 23, they tackle one of the major comedies such as Twelfth Night.

This company directed production mixes some new faces in with long-time members of the company and everyone commits to bringing out the humor in each scene and creating characters that all feed off of each other.

They tackle head-on one of the more challenging aspects of the show—that it requires twins who are mistaken for each other. Rarely does any company manage to have two actors who actually look enough alike to credibly pass for the other. So the “twins,” played in this production by Seraphina Zorn as Viola and Chaz Albright as Sebastian, introduce the show and each other with a “nudge, nudge, wink wink” telling the audience that they look identical except for such things as he having sky blue eyes and she having sapphire ones.

From there the rollicking begins and this company counts on the imagination of its audience to create sets, to accept the double casting and to look beyond the gender of the actors and deep into the inherent humanity of each character.

Twelfth Night begins with a shipwreck and continues with the lovelorn affairs of the nobility of Illyria. Duke Orsinio (Ashley Normand) pines away for the Countess Olivia (Maggie Hinckley) who has forsworn love until she has mourned her brother for seven years. Viola, shipwrecked and convinced her brother has drowned, dresses as a man and takes a position as a servant in Orsinio’s court. Even as she falls in love with him, the duke sends her off to woo Olivia for him.

Meanwhile, Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Scott Wright) and his minions Andrew Aguecheek (Lauren Heyboer) and Maria (Ashley Viersen) indulge in hijinks and plot against the house’s steward Malvolia (one of the few times the gender of the character is changed to match that of the actor) (Kat Hermes).

Too often in productions of Twelfth Night, the scenes between the two women, Olivia and Viola, suffer because they feel tame in comparison to the rollicking energy of the clown scenes that bookmark them. But Zorn and Hinckley inject their scenes with vitality and animation, magnifying the investment the audience has in each of their interactions.

Zorn’s Viola expertly dances between uncertain confusion over playing a mismatched role and confidence and intelligent wittiness. Hinckley makes a beautiful transition from the dignified and still noble-in-mourning to a woman carried away by the madness of love.

Rachel Varley gives a singular interpretation and performance of the jester, Feste. She imbues him with a sardonic air that always stops short of sneering. He is the type of clown who understands intimately that comedy comes from a place of sorrow, of looking at the sufferings and foibles of others and twisting it to make others laugh. He dances up to the line of misanthropy and then backs away from it with an air of mixed isolation and forbearance.

Varley, with her Joker-like makeup done in a black and white palette, creates a consistent movement vocabulary with her Feste, injecting dance steps and exaggerated body movements that are motivated by character and not by the joke of the moment. She doesn’t go for the easy laughter and in doing so creates a highly memorable Feste who was always fascinating to watch.

The Belch-Aguecheek-Maria trio is always a highlight of the play and it is true in this production as well. Veteran Pigeon Creek actor Wright (who triples as the show’s fight choreographer and musical director) is the drunken knight who mooches off everyone willing to be gulled by him. Wright adds that necessary larger-than-life quality to him, a Falstaffian presence who never entertains a moment of self-doubt.

Heyboer’s Aguecheek is delightfully dopey, deliberately vacuous and the perfect foil to Wright’s Belch. Viersen’s Maria is strong, a bemused observer and plotter.

Kat Hermes, who frequently plays the lead roles in Pigeon Creek productions, creates an arrogant and loud Malvolia who secretly harbors a love for her mistress. When she appears cross-gartered for Olivia, the presentation is more of a foppish sexuality than a clownish one. She attempts to exude out-of-place sensuality among those whose love sicknesses seem almost divorced from any sort of physicality.

All the ensemble plays nicely together, generous in their listening and committed to a clear line of storytelling. They exhibit a comfort with the language that extends to the audience, enveloping them in the players’ schemes and dreams and making the show deliciously accessible.

There is a danger in company directed shows, especially comedies, that the production will be given over to the gag of the moment and barter in transactional scenes rather than commit to an overall vision of a story. This production avoids that danger and makes Twelfth Night a fun romp that comments on the foolishness of love and the things we will do for it.

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