This July, one of the best new summer traditions in Evanston returned to Ridgeville Park at 908 Seward St., on the East Stage, with "Shakespeare on the Ridge." Now in its fourth year, in 2013 the Arc Theater Company brought one of Shakespeare's most accessible and hilarious comedies, "Twelfth Night," to the stage. And believe it or not, it is still free, with two more performances coming Saturday and Sunday Aug. 3 and 4 at 7 p.m.
Directed by Mark Boergers and edited down to a manageable 95 minutes (the full play generally lasts over three hours) by Mr. Boergers and the Arc, the performance sticks mostly to the play's comic roots. But as has come to be expected from Arc, the production manages to find ways to accentuate the unexpected – this time finding elements of melancholy and pathos within Shakespeare's text.
As with each of the four shows to date, Teddy Boone, one of the founding members of Arc, is the highlight of the show. This year, he takes on the role of Malvolio, the "most notoriously abused" steward of the play's central female authority figure, Olivia. It is a role made for Mr. Boone, who's combination of physical humor, facial expressions, and timely and pointed delivery finds a perfect outlet in this character. Each year, Mr. Boone seems to get even better. (Prior roles were Mercutio, Dr. Caius and Bottom.)
Newcomer Tyler Meredith is quite charmingly good as Viola/Cesario, managing to point out the ridiculous shallowness of both Duke Orsino (Joe Flynn) and Olivia (Kate Smith). The "love" professed by both, Duke toward Olivia and Olivia misguided toward a Viola dressed as a male Cesario, forces the audience wonder about both characters. And it is supposed to. Ms. Meredith, new to Arc, makes her character the only one we ultimately care about other than perhaps Antonio – but more on Antonio later. Viola, as observer of both male and female shallow love, while herself becoming mysteriously prey to it herself by falling for Orsino, carries one of the play's central themes. And Ms. Meredith is up to the task, alternately infectious, tough, spirited, and refreshingly vulnerable.
Ms. Smith is also quite good as Olivia, her face lighting up like a silly, crushed- out junior high student when she falls for Cesario. The character, head of a prominent household in fictional Illyria, is strong enough to preside over an estate and yet hopeless, foolishly, in love.
The second theme of the play, the bacchanalian lifestyle of Sir Toby Belch versus the puritanical impulses of Malvolio, is carried brilliantly by the combination of Belch (Colin Wasmund), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Ryan Lempka), and Feste (Daniela Colucci), all Arc newcomers. The three agree to a plot to torture Malvilio hatched by Maria, Natalie Salle, who was exceptional as the Nurse in last year's Romeo and Juliet and is exceptional once again here.
It is difficult to pick a favorite about the quartet, as all bring their characters to life in distinctive, and very funny, ways. The audience believed Sir Toby to be drunk. Agucheek, made the fool because he was written that way, is nevertheless a loveable buffoon. Ms. Sallee's Maria shows the same combination of venom as the Nurse, but adds a sense of worldly humor that serves to hold the group together. Her venom is so strong that eventually even Belch bristles against it when he tires of torturing a hapless Malvolio.
Ms. Colucci, who also plays a small role as a sea captain early in the play, is outstanding as Feste, particularly when she takes a hilarious turn as Sir Topas to a restrained Malvolio. Her timing and delivery are outstanding.
Choices made by director Mark Boergers really separate this version of "Twelfth Night" from others. By choosing to highlight the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian (Sean Wiberg), the long-lost twin brother of Viola, the play ends up forcing the audience to question characters ordinarily seen as harmless at worst, heroic at best. Here, Sebastian so quickly abandons his dear friend, and apparent lover, Antonio, as soon as Olivia takes him in. Yet Olivia has mistaken him for Viola, the one she truly loves. Sebastian, it appears, rejects true, constant, loyal and real romantic love for, well, money and beauty.
Antonio, the constant love, remains bound on the stage as the three married couples leave at the end. Feste, the fool, cuts him free, but we are all left to wonder at what we have seen. Love, in this performance, is about as shallow as can be.
Evanston is lucky to have such performances, year after year. And there is still time to catch Arc's best work yet. Special appreciation to the hearty crowd who sat through the July 21 performance, and of course to the actors who performed. A steady rain fell throughout the first half of the performance, and while many checked the skies nearly all stayed. The show went on – and it was well worth it.