Ask Philippa: Twelfth Night Edition

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly. Photo courtesy Philippa Kelly.

Twelfth Night is Shakespeare’s last and darkest comedy, written in 1601. Director Christopher Liam Moore calls Twelfth Night his favorite Shakespeare play, treasuring its capacity to soar to the heights of mirth and delve to the darker parts of humanity. Set on the tiny island of Illyria, the play takes its characters on a huge emotional journey, in which they question who they are, mourn losses, entertain big dreams, and discover parts of themselves that they didn’t know where there.

I’d be delighted to answer any artistic or dramaturgy questions about what’s in store for this season’s production of Twelfth Night. Curious about cast, themes, creative choices, or anything else? Ask Philippa! Please leave your questions in the comments, and I’ll be sure to respond.

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Dr. Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).

You can email Philippa at pkelly@calshakes.org, or post below to ask her a question.

Buy tickets for Twelfth Night, or subscribe to the 2015 Season, by clicking here; or, call the Box Office at 510.548.9666.

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Play On: Madness and Reality in Twelfth Night

By Cory Downing

I’ve always seen Twelfth Night as perhaps Shakespeare’s most extreme experiment with human psychology. For a writer who is successful in large part due to an understanding of human psychology, Twelfth Night takes enormous risks in terms of the sheer number of characters whose actions, back to back to back, threaten to strain credulity. I simply can’t think of another writer who could take proud, pious Malvolio and drive him so swiftly and completely to yellow-stockinged, cross-gartered puppyhood, and then, even further, to piteous vulnerability. Certainly there are stories such as that of Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or even Athelstan from the History Channel’s show Vikings, with straight-laced characters struggling with and abandoning some of or all of their virtues for lust or love or some other purpose. But Twelfth Night has always struck me as pressing the boundaries of plausibility, without once (barring a bad performance) truly breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

Think of Duke Orsino, who goes through fewer character changes than the rest of the cast, and who, in the hands of a lesser playwright, might be a very weak character. Instead, he is at once brilliant, absurd, relatable, and memorable. We have all heard his famous line “If music be the food of love, play on,” though few remember that the following lines are “Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,/The appetite may sicken, and so die.” He’s willing to go to enormous lengths not so much for any love interest in particular, but for the sake of love itself.

Twelfth Night is arguably Shakespeare’s most homoerotic play, taking especially the impetus of Duke Orsino’s obsession with love to force not only himself, but two other characters (Olivia and Viola) into situations of questionable heterosexuality. Olivia lusts for Viola-as-Cesario, while Viola-as-Cesario-as-Olivia helps Orsino practice his fantasies with his “male” servant. Both instances serve as sources of comic relief, and perhaps they subtly gesture also toward Shakespeare’s own bisexuality. The veil of laughter, pulled back, unmasks questions at the forefront of today’s political landscape regarding sexual identity and sexual orientation. What would happen if there were no Sebastian, the “male Viola”, to come in, pair off with Olivia, and tie up all the loose ends? Would Olivia really abandon her attraction to “Cesario”? Is her attraction to Sebastian really the same as her interest in Cesario—is she, a smart, layered, powerful woman, truly that shallow? Is it not interesting how Orsino, immediately upon revelation of Viola’s true gender, instantly agrees to a relationship with her, no questions asked? Is this merely Orsino being Orsino? Shakespeare tying up loose ends? (Go look at Shakespeare’s genderbending Sonnet 20!)

Along the way to the absurd conclusion of Twelfth Night – duels, mistaken identities, psychological torture, pranks, marriages—every step is marked clearly by completely reasonable choices made by understandable characters. A woman dressing as a man for safety of travel, particularly in a dangerous and comparatively sexist time, makes plenty of sense. For a woman pretending to be a man to continue pretending, long after it starts becoming dangerous and ironic, if only to keep her position’s advantages, makes just as much sense. Pranking a hated, stuffed shirt of a person in power is a desire many have—and it is perfectly understandable, on the other end—who hasn’t been crazy for love with no reasonable hope of success? This is the magic of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Who needs powerful, mysterious fairies when humans will make wonderful fools of themselves all on their own?

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Making Oscar Proud

Dramaturgy Intern Clio McConnell blogs from inside the Lady Windermere’s Fan rehearsal room.

Before actually landing one’s dream job in the real world, the average college student looks upon that prospect as a sort of utopian ideal: Naturally, one’s dream job involves spending all day doing something one enjoys and is good at. If one is lucky, of course, this utopia will eventually become reality.

By that standard, hanging out at Cal Shakes this summer has been a really lucky break for me. The more time I spend in the rehearsal room for Lady Windermere’s Fan, the harder it is to imagine a better workplace. From the first read-through it has been clear that this early Oscar Wilde play is seriously complex, with a lot of complicated relationships and moral quandaries. But I assumed that director Christopher Liam Moore would have a vision to dive into straightaway—to my untrained mind, that is what a director does. Of course, Chris had a thoroughly better idea about how to approach directing.

Stacy Ross (Mrs. Erlynne), Emily Kitchens (Lady Windermere), and Aldo Billingslea (Lord Windermere) in Cal Shakes’ production of Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde, directed by Christopher Liam Moore; photo by Kevin Berne.

Stacy Ross (Mrs. Erlynne), Emily Kitchens (Lady Windermere), and Aldo Billingslea (Lord Windermere) in Cal Shakes’ production of Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde, directed by Christopher Liam Moore; photo by Kevin Berne.

On the first day of rehearsal he spoke to a huge group of actors, designers, production crew, Cal Shakes staff, and donors, essentially saying to us: “I could tell you what I think this play is about. But instead, I’m going to wait for these actors to teach me what it’s about.” And from then on, the process of Lady Windermere’s Fan has been a great big learning experience—for everyone, I think (directors, actors, stage managers, dramaturg), but especially for me.

Indeed, we have all learned (or been reminded of) a fair amount about Oscar Wilde and his London. We know about the peerage system—a Duke is higher than a Lord, for anyone who was wondering—and about how to properly convey one’s feelings with a certain wave of a fan. We know about 1870s fashion and train schedules and Victorian gentlemen’s clubs. Hopefully all of these fascinating minutiae will afford lessons that the audience can learn from their seats. But I have learned one thing above all that will not (and should not!) manifest in the final production: that this show has had a head-spinning trajectory of evolution.

After the first day of work, I remember chatting with one of the actors and telling her how great her scene had looked (because it really had been lovely). She grimaced, saying, “No, no—let’s just forget about today.” This has been the overwhelming attitude of everyone involved: We can always know more and we can always change things.

So, my utopian ideal of working in the theater is largely based on a dream to work with intelligent people. As far as that wish goes, I think I have fallen in with the right crowd, because the Lady Windermere’s Fan rehearsal room is pervaded by an air of intelligent wit—an air, I think, which Mr. Wilde would have much appreciated.

Lady Windermere’s Fan, directed by Christopher Liam Moore, is on stage at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda from August 14 to September 8.

 

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Season Artist Profile: Christopher Liam Moore

CLM in Ghost Light

Christopher Liam Moore and Bill Geisslinger in GHOST LIGHT at Oregon Shakespeare Festival; photo by Jenny Graham.

In the months leading up to the start of our 2013 Main Stage season, I am once again profiling the creative minds behind our productions. The March installment of the Season Artist Profile features Christopher Liam Moore, a frequent guest artist at Oregon Shakespeare Festival who may be familiar to you as the actor who played Jon in Ghost Light at OSF in 2011 and Berkeley Rep in 2012. The noted director makes his Cal Shakes debut this summer when he helms Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde.

What follows is the full transcript of my email interview with Chris. To sign up for our email newsletter, click here.

Stefanie Kalem: What are you working on right now? What projects have you done most recently, or do you have coming up?

Christopher Liam Moore: I am directing two shows at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this season. I am currently in rehearsals for A Streetcar Named Desire, which opens on mid-April. I start rehearsals next week for A Midsummer Night’s Dream which opens in mid-June. This winter, I directed Red Herring by Michael Hollinger at Artists Repin Portland.

Red Herring at Artists Rep

The cast of Moore's 2013 production of RED HERRING at Artists Rep; photo by Owen Carey.

SK: Is this your first time directing Wilde?

CLM: This will be my first time directing Mr. Wilde. I am thrilled and terrified.

SK: What do you like about directing for an outdoor stage?

CLM: I love the scale of it. I love that the stars are the roof. I love the intimacy and claustrophobia of a Victorian drawing room juxtaposed against the expansiveness of the hills and trees.

SK: How do you think working on our stage will be different from working with the OSF one?

CLM: In the Elizabethan Theatre at OSF, there is a massive two-story Tudor facade that is the backdrop for every production. It is a decidedly strong visual presence which can be wonderful and also challenging. I am very much looking forward to having the hills of Orinda lend their magic to Mr. Wilde’s world. I am looking forward to learning the space acoustically as well.

SK: Can you share with us any additional early thoughts on this production of Lady Windermere?

CLM: We have a tremendous cast. I know we will dive deep and create an emotionally fearless production which honors Mr. Wilde’s wit and sharp insight. Our early design meetings have been exciting. There will be some unexpected choices.

SK: Was there a piece of theater you saw when you were younger that made you think, “I want to be a part of this”?

Original production of Streetcar

Elia Kazan's original Broadway production of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, starring Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Jessica Tandy.

CLM: Yes, I saw Midsummer at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts when I was in high school. I had never seen Shakespeare done with such wide-open imagination.

SK: What inspires you right now? Any particular theater artist, music, film, television, visual art, politics?

CLM: Two people: my husband, Bill Rauch, the artistic director at OSF, for always putting his heart into the work and inspiring me to do the same; and Jon Moscone, for being brave and daring me to be so, too

SK: And lastly, if you could have directed or acted in any production in history, what would it be?

CLM: Right now, I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during the rehearsal process for the original production of Streetcar.

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Ask Philippa: Off-Season Edition

Philippa Kelly at Blithe Spirit Scoop 2012 by Jay Yamada

Philippa Kelly at the Inside Scoop for BLITHE SPIRIT, July 2012; photo by Jay Yamada.

Philippa Kelly, resident dramaturg for Cal Shakes, invites your questions about our 2013 season, which begins May 29. Subscriptions and FlexPasses on sale now.

Just because the Main Stage season closes, it doesn’t mean we at Cal Shakes are suddenly turned to marble, like Hermione in the fourth play of our 2013 season, A Winter’s Tale. Ask any questions you like and you’ll get an answer promptly. Are you reading the 2013 plays between seasons? Curious as to what we’re planning? Or do you have questions about Shakespeare—what is known about his life and writing process? Ask in the comments and I’ll be sure to respond.

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