Ellipsis Theatre fought a plague throughout its house to produce Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night"



The rehearsals for Ellipsis Theatre's Twelfth Night were a breeding ground for illness (and good acting).

[https://www.facebook.com/EllipsisTheatreA2|Ellipsis Theatre]’s production of Twelfth Night has been beset by a tragedy of the sort usually only seen performed on the stage of Shakespearean prose -- namely, a plague.

Many of the actors caught serious cases of the flu, to the point where the show did not go on during the first weekend of its run and was pushed back a full week. The night I saw the show, one actor (playing Sir Toby) had just joined the cast in the last three days and another actor who was playing Orsino was doubling for Sir Andrew since the original Sir Andrew had turned green just hours before.

Such extreme changes in performance schedules will almost certainly affect audience levels for the run, which is a shame; I strongly recommend that you go see Twelfth Night this upcoming weekend if you can, assuming that the cast has not all fainted into comas.

The direction by Joanna Hastings is very good, especially in two broad categories: she successfully places 12 people on the stage who all appear to at least passably understand what they’re saying (this is not often true of amateur actors in other Shakespearean productions that I’ve seen), and she has modernized the setting without resorting to stale or nonsensical gimmicks. (For an example of those gimmicks, I once saw a version of Macbeth where the witches were played by seven people and Macbeth was played by two more people, all were costumed in goth steampunk chic, and the director had not added anything of value to the play other than successfully casting as many actors and actresses as he could fit onto the stage.)

While there are many props used in this production of Twelfth Night, they all help to illuminate Shakespeare’s words and intent, or modify that intent to the modern palette. This fits with the mission of the Ellipsis Theatre, which is to bring old stories and theatrical traditions to life in new ways.

According to Hastings, she “chose a fictionalized version of New York for our setting, because the shipwreck and unconventional arrival of the twins in Illyria put us in mind of refugees coming to this country, being welcomed by the sight of the Statue of Liberty and what she stands for, and being integrated into the extraordinary and diverse society that a city like New York offers.” The set of a subway station is effective, the costumes are for the most part fantastic, and the posters and signs designed by Iris Hastings look professionally done.


Ellipsis Theatre co-founder Scott Screws (left) plays the wise fool Feste in this modern version of Twelfth Night.

Of the leads, there are quite a few stars -- Feste, played by Scott Screws who co-founded Ellipsis, is brilliant as the wise fool philosophizing and singing about the wisdom of tomfoolery and the folly of wisdom, here modernized into a homeless man sleeping in a subway station who sings for spare change. Shakespeare’s plays often dealt with philosophical ideas only tangentially related to the stories he was telling, and in the script of Twelfth Night he spent a great deal of time poking at the intelligence required by a fool to smartly entertain.

Markham Isler plays the role of Sir Toby with a mixture of puppy-like wonderment in his eyes and a voice like Latka from Taxi. The effect is adorable, especially when he has written an angry letter challenging a fellow suitor to a duel for a lady’s hand and spends the whole time mouthing the words of his letter to a stuffed elephant that he carries around as a security blanket. In contrast, Isler as Orsino is handsome, assured, and denies being easy caricatured.

New addition to the cast Sean Rodriguez Sharpe is excellent as Sir Toby, stumbling around in an alcoholic stupor cracking drunken jokes for most of the play, yet switching into a formidable foe instantaneously. The women leads Mouse Courtois and Krystle Dellihue as Viola and Olivia, respectively, are also capable actors, though they’re not given quite the same quality of material to work with. Of the smaller roles, most are acted well or passably, with standout performances from character actors Breon Canady (who deserves more stage time than her three roles allow) and Karl Sikkenga as Malvolio.

If I have one main criticism about this show, it’s the running time: Twelfth Night runs for a full 2 1/2 hours, and the last 20 minutes do drag a bit as the denouement is oh-so-painstakingly revealed. This is not a result of the acting or the direction, but merely the way Shakespeare wrote the ending.

Please don’t let this stop you from going to see it -- as Hastings said about the play, she chose Twelfth Night because of the “streak of sadness amongst the hilarity, the wisdom in the foolery, the multiple facets of love.”

This production succeeds at bringing these ideas to life, and is highly entertaining to boot.

Toby Tieger has directed, acted in, and written plays over the last 10 years, and sees theater as often as he can. He is a bookshelver/processor with the Ann Arbor District Library.

Ellipsis Theatre’s ”Twelfth Night” runs March 9-12 at Theatre Nova, 410 W Huron St, Ann Arbor. The Thursday through Saturday shows are at 8 pm; the Sunday performance is at 7 pm. For more information and tickets, visit the play’s [https://www.facebook.com/events/1083857571737512|Facebook Event page] or email ellipsistheatreboxoffice@gmail.com. Ellipsis’ next show in May will be Bertolt Brecht's “The Caucasian Chalk Circle.”