By Josh Flanders
Midsommer Flight’s production of Twelfth Night begins with a fantastical journey; not in the play, but an actual physical journey through the humid tropics of the Lincoln Park Conservatory, winding through luscious greenery, following the sound of music to a clearing of chairs.
There, actors and musicians joyously play holiday tunes on flute, guitar and a variety of instruments, setting a mood that harkens back to Elizabethan times. As the audience settles in to these wondrous surroundings, the festive mood sets a playful tone that continues throughout this highly enjoyable and ambitious production.
The story of Twelfth Night centers on Viola, one of two twins who are shipwrecked and separated. This play has all the classic Shakespearian comedy tropes: love triangles, cross dressing, mistaken identities, and reunited family, while still being considered one of the “problem” plays, in that some characters wind up happy while others end up alone and sad. As Director Dylan S. Roberts notes, “this time of year is simultaneously filled with joy and melancholy,” making it a perfect holiday show.
“If music be the food of love, play on,” writes the Bard, “give me excess of it.” Indeed, this Twelfth Night is filled with original music, beautifully composed by Elizabeth Rentfro and Alex Mauney, reflecting this dichotomy. Rentfro also plays Feste, a jester, to Olivia, a wealthy countess, often breaking into song. Rentfro’s contribution to this production cannot be understated, as she opens and closes the show playing and singing, plays a major role during the production, and is responsible for composing (with Mauney) music whose blending of whimsy and melancholy perfectly reflect the feelings elicited by the actors.
While all the performances in Twelfth Night are top notch, it’s the women who really steal the show. LaKecia Harris is phenomenal as Viola, the heroine, who spends most of the play dressed as a man, Cesario. Harris imbues her role with passionate intensity as if she were born to play Shakespeare, or to paraphrase the Bard, “some are born into greatness” and indeed this is an actor to watch.
The other standout performance comes from Amy Malcom who plays Malvolio, a steward in Olivia’s household and the main antagonist of the play. Malcom’s stoic, dry wit, from the moment she appears, as well as her physicality, has the audience erupting with laughter. Her transformation later in the play evokes equal amounts of delight, and while her character ultimately ends up alone, the audience revels in her journey from stiffly reserved to vivacious and playful.
Props must be given to the amazing musicians and actors who helped transform the Conservatory with their incredible talents, including Anna Civik, Halie Merrill, Joe Sergio, Shaina Schrooten, and Summer Hofford. Co-Fight Directors Chris Smith and Maureen Yasko add some excellent swordplay, no easy feat with audience members within striking distance. Costume designer Shawn Quinlan does a fine job creating period pieces with a modern flair and has fun with the “yellow stockings and cross garters” of Malvolio’s character, traditionally played by a man. Robert makes thoughtful casting choices, like casting Malcom as Malvolio, which works perfectly, and his direction makes the most of the non-traditional Conservatory space.
Shakespeare lovers will delight in this adaptation of Twelfth Night, as will first-timers to the Bard. From the beautiful locale, to the outstanding performances, if there is one testament to the power of this production to hold an audience’s attention for 100 minutes with no intermission, a six-year-old sat completely enraptured the entire time, totally silent and on his birthday nonetheless. Plus tickets are free, so get thee to the Conservatory!
Midsommer Flight presents “Twelfth Night” through December 17 at Lincoln Park Conservatory, 2391 N. Stockton Drive, Chicago. Tickets are free, but reservations strongly recommended. More information and tickets are available here.