TWELFTH NIGHT – WHAT’S IN A GENDER?

TwelfthNight1Scene-600x440

Twelfth Night, Photo Credit: Brad Norris

A REVIEW BY RIVER STYX

Note:

* Pronouns for Alice Stanley are their/them
* Pronouns for Logan Davidson are ze/zis

Gender is a hot topic right now. It’s one of those metals you hope cools into place soon so people can simply be their authentic selves without bringing social justice into it. However, now it’s sizzling. The discussion of gender in popular culture — championed by Kaitlin Jenner, shows like “Transparent,” etc. — most likely contributed to Cohesion Theatre Company and Iron Crow Theatre being able to win a grant from the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the City of Baltimore’s Creative Baltimore Fun to produce the three-part “Trans Voices Workshop Series.”  This is an important and well worthwhile endeavor.

The second installment of the workshop series is a 90-minute adaption of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” whose plot revolves around gender bending. The play was presented at Church on the Square in Canton from Jan. 8-10, so if you didn’t see it, you’ll have to wait for a different company’s production of “Twelfth Night.” Shipwrecked twins Viola and Sebastian are separately tossed to the shores of Illyria, where each believes the other to be dead. Viola disguises herself as a man, going by Cesario, so she can find work and survive in a culture that doesn’t allow women to be independent. She quickly is swept into a love triangle. Viola’s into her boss Duke Orsino, who’s into Lady Olivia, who’s into Viola disguised as Cesario. Throw in some side gags and Sebastian entering the love triangle as totally amped to marry beautiful, rich Olivia even though she calls him Cesario, and you’ve got a show.

When Cohesion’s season opening show fell through, the first installment of the Trans Voices Workshop Series, “A Little Bit Not Normal,” got an upgrade to mainstage production, including a full rehearsal schedule and production consideration and multi-weekend run. “Twelfth Night” got four rehearsals and three performances. That the production includes thoughtful costumes, a set, varied blocking and actors who knew all their lines is mightily impressive for a workshop production. The work that went into “Twelfth Night” is undeniable.

Director (also adaptor) Phil Vannoorbeeck’s energetic staging continues Cohesion’s trend of moving its productions at a clipped pace that keeps the attention of audiences. Costume Designer Katherine Beem dresses the cast in jewel tones and playful touches like bow ties, suspenders and work boots, rounding out the polish of this workshop production. There was even a screen with photos of a beach and courtyard projected to add a sense of place – another contribution from Vannoorbeeck.

The objective of including “Twelfth Night” in the Trans Voices Workshop series to catalyze to perceptions of gender, however, was not fully realized in this production. There was some gender-blind casting, but there was also a lot of gender stereotyping. None of the opportunities to flip or reimagine stereotypes built into the Bard’s script were taken advantage of except the choice to make the male Antonio character overtly sexually into male character Sebastian. But, the idea that a woman could be into another woman wasn’t explored. And gendered characters were still heavily stereotyped in this production. For a workshopped production of “Twelfth Night,” it was pretty solid, but as part of the Trans Voices series, it didn’t live up to its potential.

Actor Logan Davidson led the cast as Cesario and Sebastian (and Viola in one scene). Ze was a joy to watch as the male Sebastian, because Davidson brought an engaging gender neutrality to the character, giving a natural performance that was devoid of masculine stereotypes. The scenes when ze was Cesario — a female character pretending to be male — were stiffer, and Davidson seemed uncomfortable playing a woman. I came into the play a Davidson fan after being impressed by zis comedic performance in the Charm City Fringe show “That Way Madness Lies,” but Davidson’s expressive facial reactions weren’t as effective in “Twelfth Night” when ze as Cesario feigned disgust at Olivia’s advances. I can’t imagine anyone being put off by Lilian Oben’s elegant, spunky and flirtatious Olivia. She is the sole female playing a female in the show (apart from Danielle Vitullo’s brief, tomboyish appearance as Viola), and she plays powerful, yet vulnerable and sexual very well. Where has Oben been? And where is she going next? I’ll be there. She stole her scenes with her considerable stage presence. A particular highlight of the show was when Davidson as Sebastian accepts Olivia’s advances, which have been consistently refused by Davidson as Cesario. It’s a coupling that seems authentic and is easy to root for.

Melanie Glickman was delightfully droll in her interpretation of morose Malvolio tricked into thinking his lady Olivia was in love with him. Glickman was very funny in all her scenes, especially the scene when she first discovers “Olivia’s” letter declaring her love and requesting Malvolio to show his reciprocation by smiling a lot, wearing yellow pants and not explaining his actions to anyone. Glickman enthusiastically throws herself into these tasks, comically forcing a crooked smile to show her devotion. I’m looking forward to seeing Glickman in Cohesion’s “The Complete Deaths of William Shakespeare” this weekend, with shows Jan. 15-17. If you need a cad in a show, Cohesion calls Matt Payne, who is drunken Sir Toby Belch in “Twelfth Night.” Payne and Cohesion Theatre Admin Caitlin Carbone (playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek) gave performances that would have benefitted from more subtle direction, but given the short rehearsal time, their enthusiasm and physicality showed a lot of commitment, which is something that can be said for everyone involved with Cohesion. The troupe is committed to their work. Not much is half-assed. But, sometimes the group’s regular actors could benefit from being a little less full-assed.

Again, everyone who worked on this production should be commended for the effort that went into putting together this show considering the short rehearsal time. Not only did the actors wholeheartedly embrace their characters and learn their lines, there were even a couple of fight scenes with weapons thrown in for good measure. So, they had blocking, lines, scene partner chemistry AND fight choreography to learn in four rehearsals. Kudos for the hard work.

And bigtime kudos for making the Trans Voice Workshop Series a reality. The final installation is an original work written by Cohesion Co-Founder Alice Stanley, who has already shown their skills as a playwright with “Baby Anderson,” an official selection in 2015’s “Variations on Family” theater festival. Stanley, who has recently come out as identifying as non-binary, will present their “Aphorisms on Gender” April 1-3. Mark your calendars now.

Bottom line: Although “Twelfth Night” wasn’t a perfect fit for the vision of the Trans Voices series, it was an impressive production considering the quick turnaround. Cohesion’s reliably stellar production efforts should bode well for the final installation in the series, Alice Stanley’s “Aphorisms on Gender,” running April 1-3.

Attended Jan. 10 (ran Jan. 8-10) at Church on the Square in Canton

Contact Styx at:  riverstyxemail@gmail.com.

Styx Disclaimer: As a newbie to the area, I am not an expert on Baltimore theater, but I have strong opinions about artistic endeavors – especially community theater productions. Generally, I’m a big fan of people, and I know some of the artists I review. I root for everyone and am thrilled when people create thoughtful, compelling productions. I also think if you’re going to do anything, you should do your best, so I’m honest when something doesn’t work. I think it’s awesome you spend your free time creating performance art, and I offer my thoughtful commentary in honor of that dedication.

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