Twelfth Night at Fresno Pacific: A festive night with students and Shakespeare

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Twelfth Night at Fresno Pacific University is definitely a festive production. There’s Feste, the fool, various choristers called “Festivities”, a festive title, and a festively decorated mantle piece front and center. It is only missing a Festivus for the Rest of Us, although Malvolio’s litany of complaints in the final act would definitely qualify as an “Airing of Grievances.”

The Seinfeldian qualities of Twelfth Night probably end there – except that it is generally a play about nothing, intended to offer the barest pretext for an evening’s entertainment. Filled with songs, practical jokes, drunken mischief, mistaken identity, sword play, and an improbable romance or two, Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s lightest, yet most poetically impassioned, comedies.

It’s a lot to ask a student cast to master all at once, but in several areas they succeed. And in others, a gentle reminder that they are students who are coming along in a new experience is helpful.

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The play hits all cylinders during the comedic scenes with Sir Toby Belch and his crew, led by Trevor Thomas (a graduate of the FPU Theater program) as Sir Toby. He and Jesse Daniel as Andrew Aguecheek make a fine comedic pair, never missing an opportunity for a well-timed bit or a pointed bon mot. Toss in a pertly expressive Maria (Gracie Robinson), and you’ve got a winning triad. In fact, I couldn’t stop watching Robinson’s face, it has such a natural charismatic range.

The romantic plot, however, is ostensibly the A-plot in Twelfth Night, and here is where the student work could use a bit of spiffing up.  Robbie Hill (Orsino), Carlie Dickens (Olivia), and Allison Calhoun (Viola) are well-cast in their roles and look amazing in Brooke Aiello’s lush and textured costumes. Dickens in particular has a flair for carrying her Elizabethan garb – fully corseted – with grace and confidence. She’s also a lovely gentlewoman with a fine voice for the language. Hill and Calhoun also have voices and bearings worthy of playing Shakespeare. However, their inexperience with the language prevented a full grasp of marrying the poetry with the action. Very often their facial and vocal responses didn’t match the sentiments coming out of their mouths. 

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That said, sometimes the work of The Bard gets the job done itself. Hill, Dickens, and Calhoun are at their most effective when the emotional language is huge and calls for the big moment. Here, they rise to the challenge.

Jӧrg Letkemann, as Malvolio, has an uncompromising bearing and his accent lends mellifluous, dark undertones to Shakespeare’s language.

The supporting cast is charming and Feste and the Festivities (Annelise Escobedo, Kaitlyn Black, Karen Vargas, and Alexa Heinrich) add to the holiday spirit of the piece with various poignant traditional and folk songs, performed beautifully. And newcomers to the FPU stage Parker Lewis (Sebastian), Luke Fredette (Fabian), and Stasik Durkin (Antonio) stand up well in the production.

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Shannon Brewington’s simple, elegant set design, centering around a large mantle-piece decorated for Yule is effective and lends a cozy, fireside-story feel. Julia Reimer’s direction is fluid with an excellent use of the three-quarter thrust stage, and she keeps the action trucking along, despite the play’s shifts in tone between the A-plot and B-plot. I do feel that opening the play with mummers dressing for the play doesn’t add much to frame the action and that there was an opportunity missed with Malvolio’s imprisonment, what with a beautiful, large fireplace down center that isn’t used to its full potential.

One choice I truly appreciated, though, was that the music, storm effects, and sound-effects all originated from the actors. It gives this production a real “original practices” thrust. For actors who don’t very often have the chance to tackle Shakespeare, keeping things simple and oriented toward the student-driven performances was the right call.

Twelfth Night has one more weekend of performances at Fresno Pacific University. If you have a love of Shakespeare, a fondness for the Yuletide spirit, and a heart for students, put it on your to-do list.

 
Three performances remain: November 16, 17 & 18 at 8 p.m.

Ticket Information HERE. (Book in advance. Three sold-out performances already and the venue seats 60.)

 

Photos courtesy of Fresno Pacific University.
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