Road/What You Will, or Twelfth Night | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Road/What You Will, or Twelfth Night 

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ROAD and


Roadworks Productions

at the Garage

The author is nearly dead. These days a playwright tends to occupy a place somewhere between producer and lighting designer, as lots of directors and actors carefully study the deconstructionist edicts that there's no such thing as an original text and that interpretations are more valid than the works they're based on. The result is any number of pretentious, self-serving productions.

Roadworks Productions, a company of mostly current and former Northwestern students, seems to want to jump on this bandwagon. Its productions of Jim Cartwright's Road and Shakespeare's What You Will, or Twelfth Night at the Garage exhibit a lot of ambition, some talent, and a whole lot of attitude--actors and directors are clearly the highest priorities. The result is a couple of disjointed, overreaching productions that rarely hit as high as they aim.

Road is the better of the two. Not so much a traditional play as a moody piece of street theater, it's an examination of a devastated northern English town and the miserable collection of winos, miscreants, misfits, and desperate souls who live along its main road. They include a violent skinhead trying to find peace through Buddha, a young man starving himself to give meaning to his life, and a lascivious spinster intent on seducing an incoherent, puking soldier on leave. Our journey along this road is led by a lovable rogue named Scullery (Duane Sharp), who acts like a character out of Dickens as he gives us the grim tour of Thatcher's England.

Cartwright's work is gripping, filled with moments of humor and deeply felt cries of anger. But it needs a very talented ensemble to make us believe we're actually on this seedy Lancashire road, a belief that's crucial to setting the mood and keeping the audience interested--there's no single through line, just snapshots of misery.

Regrettably, this production delivers only on a couple of occasions. The final 20 or so minutes of the play--in which Eddie (Patrick McNulty) and Brink (Scott Denny) invite Carol (Debbie Bisno) and Louise (Kate Fry) back to their apartment for some hard drinking and love making, and wind up spilling out their souls in drunken, cathartic monologues--are beautifully performed and overpowering. Abby Epstein magnificently directs the gradual shift from a cute double date along the lines of Felix and Oscar and the Pigeon sisters to an impassioned plea for some means of escape from this depressed town. But this scene comes too late.

Much of the rest of the production is long on technique and short on believability. Many of the actors, a good number of whom are double cast, appear to be in different plays. Frequently it looks as if each of them rehearsed his or her own speeches in front of a mirror and came to the performance with no interest in interacting. And a few of them apparently see little difference between north Evanston angst and north England alienation; the accents are English, but the attitude is undeniably American.

When actors seem far more enchanted with hearing the sound of their own voices than with performing in an ensemble, the play suffers. The scenes don't connect, and there's no rhythm or flow. Each scene is set out as a complete and separate entity. The location is not well established, and we feel as though we could be on a dozen different roads. Philosophically this is interesting, but it's not what the author intended.

The original production of the show called for the actors to interact with audience members, and Epstein directs her actors to sit on benches next to spectators, to shove them around from place to place, and to speak directly to them. The idea was to bring us into the play, but here the effect is the opposite. When a tart or a thief sits next to a guy in a Tommy Hilfiger shirt and Levi's Dockers, the phoniness is obvious; the performers suddenly look like audience members who went to a Salvation Army store on a dress-up binge.

Far worse is this company's production of What You Will, or Twelfth Night. Messy, confusing, and ultimately ridiculous, this textbook example of chutzpah shows why Shakespeare will outlive all those who try to pillage his plays.

Disguise and mistaken identity are important in Twelfth Night, but director Derek Goldman makes them his key themes, shuffling actors and roles like a baseball manager in a losing game hoping to get something going by juggling his lineup. In this double- and triple-cast interpretation, the actor playing the duke becomes Feste and then Malvolio. One of the fools becomes Olivia, and Olivia for a time becomes Sir Toby Belch. Maria, who delights in tricking Malvolio, becomes Malvolio after the intermission. And at the end everyone sings the song of Feste. Sometimes Sir Toby Belch is a short-haired guy, sometimes he's a long-haired woman. Sometimes Feste is a guy with a stutter, sometimes he's a woman with a glazed, zombielike expression. The actors change roles like players in a game of freeze-tag until plot and character are rendered meaningless.

Why would anyone do this? Perhaps it's an attempt to literalize Viola's quote, "I am all the daughters of my father's house and all the brothers too." Perhaps it's an attempt to show the male-female natures of all the characters. Perhaps it's an effort to show that all of the characters are fools: all of the performers are given yellow objects or items of clothing--flashlights, wiffle bats, handkerchiefs, headbands, socks--that represent their foolishness, just as Malvolio's yellow stockings represent his. Perhaps the director thought that forcing the audience members to spend most of their time figuring out why lines spoken by one character in the original text are sometimes spoken here by three would divert attention from the inadequacies of some of the actors. Perhaps, having witnessed a dozen productions of Twelfth Night in a year, he simply wanted to kill off the script once and for all.

Whatever the reason, this interpretation doesn't work. The sophomoric irreverence destroys the play and leaves nothing of value in its place. Some of the performers have some good moments--those who play Malvolio are quite good. The scene of Malvolio's supposed madness is cleverly executed with only the light of a flashlight. And some of the speeches are left alone, making them pleasant to listen to. But the director's cockeyed vision denies the actors any chance to redeem the production, which recalls the worst excesses of postmodern frauds like Peter Sellars. As a thesis paper, this Twelfth Night gets an A. As theater, it gets a D. As masturbation, it wins department honors.


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