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The sense of responsibility toward classic work breathed among the hundreds who turned out for Shakespeare in Clark Park’s (SCP) Twelfth Night. Audience members sat quietly and respectfully throughout the two-and-a-half-hour performance. That audience was much whiter than in years past, due in part to West Philadelphia’s gentrification.
Oblivious residents used to wander through SCP audiences on the phone or chase a Frisbee into the performance; an invisible wall now divides the event from the life around it.
Shakespeare in the park offers tradition as much as performance. Like a holiday gathering, a summer evening of theater among the fireflies generates a joyful feeling of community. Shakespeare holds the same cultural weight that brings us home for holidays and also activates the same sense of duty.
Even with the benefit of this reverence, any performance in a public place has to fight to hold attention. Shakespeare is not known for his compelling action and plot twists but for his language, which is hard to follow for most modern listeners.
There are two solutions to this problem: sacrifice subtler elements for clarity of message and use every trick to clue the audience into what’s happening, or distract from the indecipherable text with stunts. SCP’s Twelfth Night uses a little of each.
Pax Ressler’s Viola makes excellent use of the first strategy, exhibiting a deep understanding of the text. Ressler’s movement is concise and evocative, avoiding cliché. As a result, they’re able to project both plot and feeling to the very back row. Nichalas Parker delivers a powerful performance rooted in the same kind of discipline, eliciting empathy in a smaller role as loyal servant Antonio.
Employing the second solution, director Jack Tamburri exploits José Raúl Mangual’s (Sir Andrew Aguecheek) gift for physical comedy. Inserting numerous pratfalls, Mangual earns generous laughter from an audience clearly appreciating isolated moments of skill rather than engaging with the story.
Past, present, future, all at once
Christopher Haig’s set evokes a futuristic world, and the multi-tiered stage provides plenty of room to play. Natalia de la Torre’s costumes, while eye-catching and fun, miss the opportunity to use visual cues to clarify relationships between characters.
Music further muddles the picture. The set’s aesthetic is glam rock, but the show’s music belongs to a heavier, less far-out style. The modern text’s lyrics add another layer to an already complicated production. Jess Conda’s Feste leads the band with the same charisma that makes her a local favorite as a cabaret performer. However, the nuance in her charm doesn’t transmit in this setting. The massive park audience calls for sports-arena-style hype.
After early scenes, Feste summarizes the plot in modern language, an incredibly helpful device which is unfortunately dropped. Tamburri’s vision also lacks clarity in its commentary on gender. Admirably, he works to stay mindful of gender stereotypes and presentation in the production, with seamless and successful gender-blind casting.
But the tension in Twelfth Night hinges on Viola’s presentation as a man to find work, and this presentation prevents her from sharing her feelings with Orsino. Introducing gender fluidity complicates the story in interesting ways, but that kind of interrogation requires a level of subtlety the park doesn’t allow.
Shakespeare in the park is a summer tradition, and audiences will always be game to participate. For some, it may be the only theater they see. The moment when families roll out their blankets on the grass represents a precious opportunity to dispel the myth that there are invisible walls around theater: barriers of expected behavior, long time commitment, and previous understanding of the story. A pared-down production with a focus on being welcoming could have seized that opportunity.
What, When, Where
Twelfth Night. By William Shakespeare, Jack Tamburri directed. July 25-29, 2018, in Clark Park, 4300-4398 Baltimore Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 764-5345 or shakespeareinclarkpark.org.
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