Twelfth Night, or What You Will

[This review, in edited form (i.e., without the footnotes referencing the authorship question), ran in the Denver Post on January 26th.]

What could "Shake-speare" (Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford)¹ possibly have in common with the late '60's? Enough, as it turns out, to transform the Bard's Twelfth Night—a comedy of mistaken identity and misdirected love—into a dream of romantic longing and melancholic healing.

In director Terry Dodd's account, shipwrecked Viola lands on a strange shore populated by stoners, mods, and hip nobles—all awash in desire and mischief—where she poses as a man to regain her bearings and find her way home. Rather than a literal shipwreck,² though, Dodd employs Viola's lost-at-sea voyage as a metaphor for her despondence over separation from her twin brother Sebastian, a soldier whom she fears dead in Vietnam.

Theresa Reid as Feste and L. Corwin Christie as Viola
Theresa Reid as Feste and
L. Corwin Christie as Viola
Photo: Dell Domnik
Like the imaginary characters drawn from Alice's rabbit hole in Wonderland, an amusing assortment of behaviorally-challenged illusions lurk in Viola's closet and under her bed, periodically making their appearance during her dream.

Alternately breezy and introspective, L. Corwin Christie's Viola is a woman for all seasons—well-spoken, intelligent, in touch with her feelings, and respectful of others—whose genial sharing of heartfelt intimacies invests the audience in her plight.

The Duke of Orsino, in whose entourage she lands, is a brooding poet, much in the manner of Jim Morrison (whose poster is one of many pop icons adorning Sarah Roshan's utilitarian set).

Sheathed in a rock star's leather pants and other accessories popularized by the British Invasion, Gregory J. Adams, as Orsino, paints a romantic picture of entitlement and pleasure associated with the stratospheric domain of celebs and royals. Orsino sets Viola about wooing the chic Olivia.³

Harry Cruzan as Malvolio and Stephanie Jones as Olivia
Harry Cruzan as Malvolio and
Stephanie Jones as Olivia
Photo: Dell Domnik
Appearing in a series of stunning period outfits, from faux-Elizabethan ruffles on a mod equivalent of the little black dress to an eye-popping vinyl Twiggy knockoff, Stephanie Jones' Olivia poses a regal, yet impassioned, challenge for Viola's pleadings on the Duke's behalf. Jones grounds Olivia in crisp diction and adorns her with the come hither, devil-may-care attitude so prevalent during the setting's permissive decade.

As is the case with so many Shake-spearean comedies, a parallel plot lambastes a series of personalities with whom the playwright, Edward de Vere, had a beef. Here, Harry Cruzan sparkles as the mean-spirited Malvolio (representing Sir Christopher Hatton4), who is led to believe his mistress, Olivia, pines for him. He is thereby made a fool at the hands of Wade Wood's gravelly souse, Sir Toby Belch, and Lisa Rosenhagen's flower-child, Maria.5 David Saphier's rustic Sir Andrew Aguecheek simply makes a fool of himself,6 while Theresa Reid's puckish Feste,7 who exacts payment in dove-tail joints, presides as ringmaster for this circus.

While Dodd's '60's conceit generally fits with the story, there are some rough edges, particularly the forced Vietnam War-related plot devices, which alter the ending and confuse the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian—a case of the tail wagging the dog. The ensemble also exhibits varying elocutionary talent for the text. Yet, with solid leading performances boosted by El Armstrong's oldies-but-goodies soundtrack and Susan Lyles' costumes, the "entertainment"—originally commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I—wins out.

The Denver Victorian Playhouse's production of Twelfth Night runs through February 17th. 303-433-4343.

Bob Bows


¹ "William Shake-speare" was one of three noms de plume used by de Vere to hide the author from the opinions expressed in pamphlets, essays, drama, and poetry, a common practice at the time (e.g., Martin Mar-prelate, Cuthbert Curry-knave, Tom Tell-truth, et al.). The shaken spear refers not only to Pallas Athena, goddess of war and the arts, who was born brandishing her blade, but to de Vere's own coat of arms as Viscount Bolbec. In all the clerk's rolls in England, there were no Shakespeares that hyphenated their name. The hyphenated version appeared on the first few plays as well as various pamphlets defending the throne against Catholicism. The part-time actor and poseur ("upstart crow") spelled it "Shakspere" more often that not.

² The shipwreck hearkens back to Richard I's ("the Lion-heart") misadventures in Illyria during the Crusades, when the 1st Earl of Oxford helped pay the King's ransom, while his brother Robert de Vere probably accompanied Richard. De Vere himself likely visited Ragusa (now Dubrovnik) during his continental travels—thus the detail he uses to describe this town in Illyria.

³ Olivia's courting by Orsino mirrors Elizabeth's courting by Alençon, the brother of the Spanish king. Many of the details of Elizabeth's demeanor are embodied in Olivia.

4 The letter in the play that is designed to make a fool of Malvolia is signed "The Fortunate Unhappy"—an English reversal of the Latin pen name (Felix Infortunatus; "the happy unfortunate") that Hatton used.

5 Maria is de Vere's sister Mary; Sir Toby Belch is her husband, the mischief-making, dueling, drinking, quarrelsome swordsman, Peregrine Bertie.

6 Sir Andrew Aguecheek is Bertie's best friend, Sir Philip Sidney. Belch describes Aguecheek as the very ideal of Castiglione's courtier who "speaks three or four languages word for word without book," which was true of Sidney, who was revered on the continent. Here, de Vere mocks him with linguistic faux pas. Sidney defended literature against religious zealots, but denigrated theatre, where he took things far too literally. De Vere excoriated him for this (particularly with the Chorus in Henry V). This feud, which boiled over on the tennis court, found itself into many of the plays, including Hamlet, and was nearly resolved in a duel, save for Elizabeth's intervention, by putting de Vere under house arrest.

7 Feste is the stand-in for de Vere, who was, of course, Elizabeth's (Olivia's) fool. She once put him in the Tower of London for impregnating one of her ladies-in-waiting (vestal virgins), Anne Vavasor (the dark lady of the sonnets). As noted above, she had to restrain him from dueling with Sidney. Despite these trials, she thrived on his poetry, commissioning him repeatedly, and bestowing him with an annual stipend that exceeded everyone else on her list. De Vere's money woes are also voiced by Feste, who correlates the bells of St. Benet's with rent due, an allusion to de Vere being unable to pay the rent of his man, Thomas Churchyard, when the fellow lived in that district.

For further details on the life of Edward de Vere see: Mark Anderson's "Shakespeare" by Another Name, Gotham Books, New York, April, 2005; Charlton Ogburn, The Mysterious William Shakespeare—The Myth & the Reality, Dodd, Mean & Company, New York, 1984; Charles Sobran's Alias Shakespeare, The Free Press, New York, 1997; or our own essay, The Shakespearean Authorship Question on this site.


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