It’s not a criticism to remark that the most remarkable thing about the Actors Ensemble’s current production of Shakespeare’s grand old comedy Twelfth Night might well be the fact that there wasn’t a messed-up line in the entire evening.
Look, we all know that Shakespeare’s language and style—even in such a preposterous bubble as this little play—aren’t exactly current usage.
So, naturally, Shakespeare must be a tougher assignment than are more modern roles, if only for actors just to get their words down right. Like, for example, in Harvey, that classic American comedy famous for Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal of the guy with the six-foot-tall rabbit on his hands. It may seem a touch strange to marvel that all the actors in Twelfth Night know all their lines, but it turns out that what we have in this production is no small example of the theater tradition: “The show must go on.”
Three weeks into a six-week preparation period before Harvey was due to open, the Actors Ensemble had the rights to present that play pulled out from under them. (The owners got a better offer when a Los Angeles touring company decided to take it to New York.) In clear theatrical tradition, it was suddenly up to director (and board member) Stan Spenger to save the show.
Spenger, whose life in the theater
hasn’t ceased since his first acting class when he was 8 years old, apparently never considered canceling the production. For reasons that make sense when he discusses them, Spenger replaced Harvey with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Possibly the “burned child” syndrome had something to do with it; he wasn’t about to have another play pulled out from under him because somebody else had more rights to it than his company did.
It probably helped a lot that it’s the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays, probably the only one you may ever see where the cast can brag that it’s presented “without cutting a single syllable.”
But the deciding factor in choosing a Shakespearian play in such stressful circumstances may well have been that Spenger knows the play extremely well; he’d worked in three full productions as well as two staged readings. His intimate knowledge obviously benefited the ultimate production.
Actors Ensemble is presenting the play at the Live Oak Theater. In addition to the quick switch of plays for the company, one of the actors had to leave during the last week of rehearsals, leaving Spenger to take on a substantial part in addition to a smaller one that he was already filling.
He’s not alone in playing more than one role. Many of the actors play multiple roles—and often so effectively that it isn’t at all clear that we aren’t seeing somebody totally new—that counting the actual actors themselves becomes a bewildering task. It looks like a cast of approximately 13, but I wouldn’t put any money on it. It’s complicated even further by the fact that the roles the actors play also involve some important portrayals of characters who are in disguise, sometimes as someone of the opposite sex.
One particularly distinguished performance is that of Norman Macleod, who does a memorable performance as Sir Toby Belch, one of Shakespeare’s great comic roles. Macleod’s British accent is genuine, and his portrayal of Sir Toby is a delight.
Actors Ensemble presents Twelfth Night at 8 p.m. through Saturday at Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck Ave. $12. For more information, call 649-5999 or see www.aeofberkeley.org.