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This article shared 3846 times since Wed Apr 15, 2009
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Playwright: William Shakespeare . At: Chicago Shakespeare Theater,

800 E. Grand. Telephone: 312-595-5600; $44-$70. Runs through: June 7


When the shipwrecked Viola makes her entrance in Chicago Shakespeare's wet-and-wild production of Twelfth Night, it's a moment worthy of Icarus in all his epic, free-falling splendor. While Lake Michigan ripples, there are 7,000 gallons of water within the Navy Pier theater. Viola, seeking refuge from a tempest ( but not The Tempest—that's over at the Steppenwolf ) arrives not from stage left, right, up or down but rather from stage far above and stage underwater, eventually emerging soaking and shivering.

We'd be inclined to cry gimmickry were director Josie Rourke's rendition of Twelfth Night no more than the watery sum of its design team's aquatically engineered parts. But for all its high-tech splashiness, this Twelfth Night is rooted in solid, good-old-fashioned stagecraft. Moreover, the swimming pool isn't just some flashy accessory; it's an organic part of the story.

That story is an unusual hybrid—three-quarters romantic comedy and one-quarter harsh, bitter-edged, borderline tragedy. The comedy is centered on familiar Shakespearean devices: Gender-bending female-to-male disguises; love at first sight; siblings separated by tragedy; a raucous, loveably ignoble group of sack-swilling wastrels; and an 11th-hour big reveal that sets all manner of convoluted love stories and mistaken identities to rights.

But Shakespeare goes beyond rom-com fluff with the character of Malvolio, veering sharply from happy-go-lucky frolic into something jagged-edged and dark. It makes for an unsettling contrast of lovers versus loners, and serves as a potent reminder that the notion of "happily ever after" is a sham.

Rourke has her cast in Elizabethan dress, delivering a straight-forward reading of the text. There's no mega-concept here and no deconstructionist meta-theatrics—just rock-solid storytelling. Rourke begins with a bone-jarring clap of thunder signifying a storm over the land of Illyria. Viola ( an engaging Michelle Beck ) and her twin brother Sebastian ( Peterson Townsend ) are separated before washing ashore, each believing the other has drowned.

Viola disguises herself as a boy and enters the service of Duke Orsino ( Mark L. Montgomery ) , who is in love with the Illyrian Countess Olivia ( a regal Karen Aldridge ) . Typical comedic/romantic complications too complex to detail here ensue.

Meanwhile: Malvolio ( a hawk-like Larry Yando ) . He's an Elizabethan Cotton Mather, puritanical, self-righteous, judgmental and utterly unbending in his belief that life should be spent in somber suffering. In Malvolio's ideal world, all of Illyria would be bereft of cakes and ale, and singing would be outlawed. This puts him at odds with the bumptious trio of Feste ( Ross Lehman, a perfect mix of tomfoolery and snarkitude ) , Sir Toby Belch ( Scott Jaeck, hilariously thick-skulled, rough-edged and uninhibited as a slow-witted frat boy ) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek ( Don Kenny in an award-worthy turn as a vainglorious, pasty-faced fusspot wholly oblivious to his own ridiculousness ) .

While the Olivia/Orsino/Viola love-triangle plays out, Feste, Belch and Aguecheek ensnare Malvolio in an increasingly cruel practical joke. To be sure, he's a deserving target initially, a self-appointed guardian of the public morality and as pompous and self-important that title infers. But once Malvolio reveals the deepest secrets of his heart ( in a monologue of wrenching import ) , the slapstick hilarity of his plight suddenly seems cruel and undeserved.

Through plot and subplot, most everyone in Illyria gets a dunking. ( Sir Toby even takes a bath at one point. ) Lucy Osborne's elaborate and beautiful Elizabethan-era costumes hold up splendidly immersion after immersion in an impressive feat of practicality and aesthetics. You could make a similar argument for water itself: It's an impressive feat of engineering to be sure. It's also unexpectedly beautiful. But most importantly—and perhaps not so surprisingly for a play that's set on an island—all 7,000 gallons become an integral part of the story. As waterworlds go, this one's a wonder.

This article shared 3846 times since Wed Apr 15, 2009
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