I have a confession to make. I, Brian Lenz, lifelong artistic person and professional theater critic know nothing about Shakespeare. I’m not familiar with his major works, I can’t reference all the movies that rip off the plot of Hamlet, and I don’t quite understand iambic pentameter. Yes, I’m familiar with Romeo & Juliet and yes, I know that Othello and Iago have a complicated relationship. Beyond that, I’m useless. When I had to read a Shakespeare play in college I rented the Mel Gibson DVD so I could see the context and not have to get lost in the typed old English (I just researched that he wrote in ‘early modern English’ not actually ‘Olde English’ – I’m learning!). For all my theater-going life I’ve avoided seeing works of The Bard because I felt like I didn’t understand it. For me, the antiquated language is hard, the unspoken references are unknown, and most productions feel either belittling or bougie. So it was with a leap of faith that I attended Twelfth Night presented by The Orchard Theater Collective.
After attending two of their productions in 2018, I’ve come to trust The Orchard Theater Collective for many reasons. They have energy; this young group of thespians is presenting several shows per year in varied venues. They have education; their shows are consistently one step off the beaten path, always introducing me to new and beautiful works not quite in the public eye. They have skillz; with each show I realize the breadth of each of these actors (and I’m sure I haven’t yet seen the full extent of their range). They have wisdom beyond their years; each of their productions has been accessible without being belittling. All of these attributes are in full display for Twelfth Night.
This production is fun! It’s a party! Which is wildly evident by the two drink tickets that accompany every admission and the serious spread at the snack table. Seating is at cafe tables and the action takes place both on a raised stage and at ground level with the audience. Comedic timing abounds and absurdity is not in short supply. Every character contributes to the humor but Ben Shaw takes the cake time and time again. His yellow stockings are clearly a delight and his more subtle works of gesture and timing are masterful. Otherwise innocuous moments are spun into stand-up comedy of the highest order. The secret weapon of the show is their use of ‘80s and ‘90s pop songs to great effect. Over and over, I thought this show had hit its high point and then I kept laughing even harder.
Now back to my Shakespearean aversion… Most of the time I attend a play or musical I revel in every nuance of the text. I analyze its historic context, I perk up at repeated phrases, I infer what each character is really saying between the lines. With Twelfth Night (being Shakespeare as it is), I couldn’t catch every subtlety of every line. Much of the eloquent phrasing pushed my attention hither and yon. I wasn’t able to listen with my usual level of detail, which first discouraged me. Then something miraculous happened: It didn’t matter that I couldn’t catch every detail. The story was being told so vividly through gesture and costume that I didn’t need every word to understand it. The personality of each character, the humor of each moment, the tension of each interaction was presented on such pristine silver platters that the actors could have been speaking French and I would have understood the story just as well. And I’m not sure (being Shakespeare ignorant as I am) but I think that’s the point. I think The Orchard Theater Collective taught me something I’ve never understood about Sir William before; that if you get too buried in the text you can lose the story altogether.
You’ve got two more weekends to see these young masters at work. READY GO!