Theatre Calgary’s Twelfth Night stays true to The Bard while adding a buffet of visual stimuli courtesy Old Trouts

If you’ve caught even a glimpse of Theatre Calgary’s advertising for their current production of Twelfth Night, it’s probably fairly obvious to you that this is not your grandmother’s Shakespeare. Or maybe it is, if your grandmother’s really unusual.

The play is a mistaken-identity comedy that is frequently revived, with increasing emphasis on gender and sexuality. Viola (Janelle Cooper) and Sebastian (Ryan Allen) are twins who are shipwrecked off the coast of Illyria. Viola washes ashore, assuming her brother has died, and dresses as a man (Cesario) in order to get a job in the household of Duke Orsino (Tyrell Crews). Orsino is in love with Countess Olivia (Anna Cummer), and sends “Cesario” as an emissary to woo her on his behalf. Olivia falls for “Cesario” instead, and typical Shakespearean mayhem ensues.

Jillian Keiley’s production was hatched at the National Arts Centre two years ago, and some of that cast return here. The big star, though, is the design, for which Keiley enlisted Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop. They’ve conceived the spectacular trompe l’oeil sets that the actors shuttle around the stage much as one might imagine a 17th century company of actors would have done. And they’ve brought some modern spark to the Baroque costumes, with towering wigs, ribboned shoes and powdered faces. John Gzowski’s sound design can’t be ignored, setting the tone perfectly with harpsichord music playing snippets of ’80s pop songs.

The Trouts are perfectly capable of telling this story entirely with puppets, but in this case, they have simply provided the environment for a company of actors who inhabit this fantastical world with obvious relish. They do manage to sneak the odd puppet into the action — a deer passes by a window while the characters talk of hunting, attendants to the Duke are costumed in body puppets (which incidentally solves the problem of having to hire so many damn actors in order to stage Shakespeare), and Neptune makes a cameo as Viola is washed ashore. There are a series of visual jokes embedded in the design — sometimes subtle and sometimes not — that manage to delight without drawing attention away from the narrative.

For the Shakespeare purists among you, be not afraid — despite the obvious focus on the design, Keiley does not neglect the text. In Act 2 Scene iv, she makes the relatively less common choice of having Orsino’s requested song sung by Viola/Cesario instead of the fool, Feste. Apart from the simple fact of Janelle Cooper’s spellbinding voice, the decision helps to move the relationship between Orsino and Viola forward, making you wonder whether, as some Shakespeare geeks argue, this was The Bard’s original intention.

The traditional casting of Viola and Sebastian hews more to the Orlando Bloom/Keira Knightley waifish tomboy type, but there is nothing traditional about this production. One could only mistake Janelle Cooper for a man if one rather desperately wished to see a man instead of a woman. And apart from skin tone, she and Ryan Allen have nothing physically in common, but the prominence of the design helps to suspend disbelief, and we accept that, as one character suggests, Sebastian has divided himself in two and created a mirror image.

Among the cast, it is difficult to single any out, but Kayvon Khoshkam is a spectacular Feste, the fool. As Viola says “this is a practice as full of labour as a wise man’s art,” and his performance is indeed exquisite. Feste’s speech is peppered with unShakespearean anachronisms that I imagine Shakespeare would have loved, had he been sitting in the audience, and Khoshkam seems to be the Tim Conway of the company, taking it as a personal challenge to see if he can make his fellow actors break character.

Christopher Hunt and Doug McKeag are also standouts as the farcical dyad of Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch. Hunt, in particular, embodies the Rococo dandy with a flare that is irresistible, and even his moments shuffling the set pieces between scenes are gems.

The production walks a fine line, offering a buffet of visual stimuli for those who imagine Shakespeare to be dry and boring, while still maintaining most of what fans of The Bard will expect to see. It is different in every possible way from every production of Twelfth Night I’ve ever seen before, and well worth braving the snow and cold to see.

(Tristan D. Lalla, Bruce Dow, Janelle Cooper, photo courtesy Andrée Lanthier.)

Twelfth Night runs at Theatre Calgary in the Max Bell Theatre until February 24. For tickets and showtimes please click here

Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.