Delighted, then Disappointed

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water-logged-twelfth-night.jpgSometimes, when I go to the major Equity theaters in Chicago, it almost seems like I’m sitting down with a Dancing with the Stars DVD marathon.  One night, you see dazzling, perfect-leg-kick kind of work ala Shawn Johnson or Melissa Rycroft, and then on other nights, there’s unbelievably atrocious work that recalls Steve Wozniak’s unspeakable, Worm-incorporating samba.  So after an ill-conceived Macbeth that undeniably proved that plays with nudity, video-projections, and electronica music scoring could be as boring, unsexy, and old-fashioned as a bocce tournament in a retirement home, Chicago Shakespeare offers up a very modern and hip, cleverly-designed Twelfth Night, directed by the hip and clever British director Josie Rourke.  But then, after the once-in-a-lifetime, transformative artistic experience of the Eugene O’Neill Festival at the Owen theater, the Goodman decides to follow those perfect plays with a world premiere of a baffling, incoherent, ultimately soporific “magical realism” play, Asian style, by a highly-regarded female playwright, Naomi Iizuka’s Ghostwritten, one of the greatest disappointments I have had in my recent arts and culture-watching.  The highs and lows of Chicago theatergoing can be so maddening!

To be frank about it, I decided to see Twelfth Night because I was curious about that much-talked about pool carved out of Chicago Shakespeare’s main stage, containing 7,000 gallons of water, the centerpiece of the show’s design.  And since my karma is almost as good as Minnesota’s soon-to-be ex-senator Norm Coleman’s, the night I went to see the show, my seat was in row A, right in front of the pool – in this particular show, the equivalent of the splash area at Sea World (thanks to BFF and new mom Sydney for reminding me about that!!!).   So I did get the full-on, water-smacked experience that having a pool onstage promised.  But it was worth it.  Rourke’s Twelfth Night is an exhilarating night at the theater – not as gape-worthy as Steppenwolf’s ultra-creative The Tempest, which is currently running across town, but thoroughly engaging, and very, very funny, nevertheless. 

Twelfth Night is one of the more frequently produced Shakespearean works around this parts (Piccolo Theatre in Evanston just finished a run) primarily because this story of gender switching and mistaken identity has some of the funniest lines and the most outrageous comedic characters in the Shakespearean canon, but also has one of the biggest, warmest hearts.  The situations are wacky and incredulous, so it takes a game, in-tuned-with-one-another ensemble such as the one in this show and a firm-handed but delicate-hearted vision similar to Rourke’s to make a production that draws the audience in without them overdosing on the silliness.  The best performance of the evening, hands down, is Larry Yando’s Malvolio, Olivia’s stern, repressed steward who becomes the the play’s laughing stock, one of Shakespeare’s most famous comic characters.  Yando’s portrayal is prissy ( I love the fact that he is the only character to wear shoes, in fact, galoshes, so his feet do not get wet in and around the pool), poker-faced and sarcastic, hilarious in his delusions, and he delivers each line reading crisply, bitingly, and wittily.  Yando is very nearly upstaged by the very, very funny Dan Kenney as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, one of Viola’s suitors, whose performance is one half Pineapple Express stoner dude, one half effeminately fey Project Runaway contestant.  I mean, when he falls in and out of the pool, his red wig a mess, his face befuddled,  his body contorted, and his legs sprawled, you can’t help coughing up a belly-aching guffaw.  Other stellar work in the very good cast is also given by the great Karen Aldridge as a modern, gutsy Olivia, demonstrating that she can be formidable in comedy as she is in tragedy (her Lady Macbeth and Queen Isabella have been some of the highlights of my Chicago Shakespeare experience in the past six months – when will we crown her Queen of Chicago theater?)  and by Ora Jones as her sexy, earth-mother type Maid.  The play feels undeniably modern, primarily because of the ensemble’s clear, almost naturalistic line readings, the controlled theatricality, and Rourke’s tight pacing and animated stage blocking.  I think some of the lighting design is too bright, and too unvarying at times, but that’s a minor quibble.

The production is memorably designed by Rourke’s frequent collaborator from the Bush Theater, Lucy Osborne.  Her costumes are in a sort of modernist Elizabethan design, with ruffles, bloomers, and tights, but youthfully and freshly reinvented.  There is an impressive, and massive, heart, made up of cedar planks that frame the stage.  And then of course, there’s the pool, with walkways surrounding it where most of the action is performed- which is, there’s no other way of putting it, a marvel of construction.   But is the pool truly necessary?  I really don’t think so.  People wade in, splash around, jump in and out of it (allowing admirers an extended view of  Orsino’s hunky stewards in see-through tights and flesh-colored briefs), and musicians play instruments in it, but I don’t really think there is enough of a rationale, either from a textual or theatrical logic basis, for them to do so.  I enjoyed the novelty of the pool, but I don’t think the experience would have been worse if the pool wasn’t there.  Unlike Tina Landau’s wonderfully jarring theatrical devices in The Tempest which created a definitive 21st century world in Shakespeare’s 16th century text, Rourke and Osborne’s pool is a conceit that I don’t think really improved on the impact of what he has written.

I wished there was a pool (with Orsino’s stewards thrown in) in the middle of the stage at Ghostwritten, so there was something that could have distracted me from trying to figure out what the hell was going on.  On paper it all sounded like a grand, mystical tour:  an American woman learns gastronomical secrets that will make her rich and successful from a mysterious Vietnamese woman in exchange for her first-born child, with of course, the sinister Asian chick determined to keep up her end of the bargain – Faust with woks. As staged, Ghostwritten is one big, messy dud.  And it pains me to write that – I love new writing, I love Asian writers, I love female playwrights and don’t think we have enough of them.  And I was very impressed with Iizuka’s Strike/Slip which I saw at the Humana Festival two years ago, which was a very introspective piece about the clashing of cultures in melting pot LA, like Crash, but with people we can cheer for.  But in conscience, I really can’t support Ghostwritten just because it is a new play written by an Asian female playwright.  That’s not fair. 

I have several big, big, complaints about this production.  First of all as a 21st century Asian theatergoer, I cannot comprehend why a new work by an Asian writer in this day will have stock Asian characters in them.  We’ve seen that mysterious, imperious Asian dowager before, in the play known only as “Woman from Vietnam” (couldn’t Iizuka have called her something, like Kim?  Hanoi Rose?  Anything?): Anna Mae Wong made a cottage industry of these women in 1930s and 1940s Hollywood.  The woman’s assistant, a taciturn, sinister-looking man with a good heart, Linh, belongs, in my book, to the Chao Lee-school of character writing (for those of you who weren’t alive and kicking in the 1980s, and those who prefer to forget that they were alive and kicking in the 1980s, Chao Lee was Jane Wyman’s taciturn, sinister-looking butler/chauffer with a good heart in the seminal 80s nighttime soap, Falcon Crest).  Use Asian stereotypes in your play, fine, but poke fun at them, invert them, go over the top with them since it’s supposed to be a fairy tale, anyway  – so why did Iizuka make them out to be so serious, and so…exotic? (I gritted my teeth when Linh discovered the pleasures of eating MacDonald’s french fries for the first time or when the Woman from Vietnam berated Susan, the American chef, for not knowing her name).  My second biggest complaint is that there are loopholes bigger than the Grand Canyon and tone inconsistencies worse than an American Idol auditionee in the narrative and character development.  The Woman from Vietnam travels with Linh inside a handbag, so she’s a mystical, shape-shifting creature, to be expected in magical realism…got it.  But in her important monologue in the second act when she recounts her life with Susan’s Vietnam vet father, it’s all realism.  It’s all I’m a lovely Vietnamese girl who falls in love with a wounded American man, not oh, I’m a lovely Vietnamese girl who can turn myself into a ferret you can handcarry on the plane.  Susan’s brother Martin is a perplexing character – I don’t really get why he’s around.  And his whole speech about seeing their father at the bottom of the lake is pretty incoherent and unrelated to the rest of the play (did the father also shape shift and get into that bag with the Woman from Vietnam?  But he’s from Wisconsin!  I haven’t really met many mystical shape shifters from Wisconsin.  Oh by the way, where the hell did that bag go after the mysterious hand came out of it at the end of Act 1????).  Then most of the second act is head-scratching, disbelief-generating, borderline painful, failed meta-theatric, with Susan’s adopted daughter Bea spending most of the act in a princess costume, her husband Chad saying he is Not Chad (actual name of character!) and instead a woodsman, and a diner mysteriously appearing in the middle of the Wisconsin woods (I was half-expecting Guy Fieri to stop by with a camera crew!).  At the end of the two hour and a half running time, I was ready for a rambutan cocktail.

I did like some elements of Ghostwritten.  I think the runaway-style staging and the use of the various levels of the theater for some scenes are effective.  Kim Martin-Cotten, who plays Susan, is always interesting to watch (she was fantastic, I thought, as a lusty Goneril in Robert Falls’ Goodman production of King Lear a couple of years back).  Arthur Acuna, a Filipino actor who has done a lot of good work in Filipino films and theater, makes a compelling Linh even if the role is poorly-written.  On the whole though, it’s a major disappointment, especially from a theater that just invaluably enriched the lives of Chicago theatergoers with its incomparable O’Neill festival.

You can be splashed at Twelfth Night, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., until June 7.  In case you still want to check it out despite what I’ve said, Ghostwritten is at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., until May 3.

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