William Shakespeare was dead for forty-four years before any woman was allowed to perform any role in his plays, proclaims Theatre Unbound, a Minnesota women’s theatre company that mounts live stage productions “conceived and created” exclusively by women. Since 1999 this unique company has given opportunities to 137 female directors, 435 female actors, 109 male actors, and 126 female playwrights spanning from the 10th century to the 21st. An outstanding achievement record…. Conversely, it’s not that unusual to see a man play a woman’s role in modern day Shakespeare, as originally conceived. In today’s gender fluid environment, a capable, talented actor should be welcomed warmly if he/she brings the role to life with discernment and artistry, no matter the genitalia beneath that actor’s costume. We need to strive, as a national arts community, to grow beyond restrictive, stereotyped portrayals or narrow “gender ownership” of roles. Theatre celebrates a full spectrum of humanity in all its fabulous array of manifestations. That’s healthy. Open that door wide.
Trinity Shakespeare Festival’s 2018 production of Twelfth Night, often called Shakespeare’s finest comedy, illustrates this fluidity to perfection. TSF is in its 10th successful year of producing national caliber productions of Shakespeare’s works that also offer stupendous educational opportunities to the Texas Christian University students who participate both on and backstage at two TCU venues. This year TSF Artistic Director Dr. Thomas J. Walsh hired Dallas-based artist Blake Hackler to direct Twelfth Night. Hackler brings a wealth of talent, knowledge and experience to any artistic endeavor. A Fulbright scholar and nationally respected actor and director, he teaches at both Yale University and SMU. His award-winning plays appear on many regional stages; currently his original adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, Enemies/People, plays at Dallas’ Second Thought Theatre (through July 7), a world premiere. In 2017, Hackler thrilled and chilled audiences and critics alike with his riveting performance as Richard in TSF’s Richard III, directed by Stephen Brown-Fried. What could the creative mojo of Blake Hackler bring to the classic, gender-bending comedy Twelfth Night?
Disaster struck two nights before the production’s first public preview. Distinguished SMU MFA grad actor Jessica Turner, recently returned to Dallas from Boston, tore an Achilles tendon and could not continue in the festival. The major role of Olivia, Count Orsino’s disdainful love interest, had to be recast, pronto. Blake Hackler, as production director, would don his actor’s cap and play the role of Olivia, himself. (Notable professional productions have played with the sexuality of the work’s characters over the years. For instance, in 2002 Shakespeare’s Globe in London featured its artistic director Mark Rylance as Olivia. The Royal National Theatre’s Twelfth Night in 2017 switched some key roles from male to female, including Feste, Fabian, which became Fabia, and notably, Malvolio, which became Malvolia, to positive acclaim. The play, in theme, character and structure, lends itself well to gender fluid performance.)
This critic witnessed the Thursday night preview of Twelfth Night, a resounding success. I have seen every production at TSF. This one ranks easily in my top four. Hackler as a director has an uncanny knack for seamless, natural integration of intimate moments within ensemble scenes, driving a play along smoothly action-wise, while allowing high caliber actors the space and time to define character nuance, explore situational humor or make a salient plot point. This production soars along at a zany farce clip, whimsically sexy and playful or poignant and thoughtful in equal measure. Regional leading actor Thomas Ward (my male actor of the year in 2017 for his performance in Loewith and Schmidt’s Adding Machine directed by Hackler at Theatre Three) gives an excruciatingly detailed performance as Malvolio, Lady Olivia’s pompous, enterprising servant conned into believing Olivia desires him for her lover. A big man capable of filling a 1000 seat house with ease, Ward can convey waves of emotional truth with the slightest cock of eyebrow or hint of shoulder shrug. Hackler directed Ward to explore every actorly possibility within his character’s reach. As obnoxiously overbearing and ridiculous as he manifests Malvolio early on, Ward inspires the audience to genuine empathy when the nasty trick played on him results in his painfully abject degradation. His suffering resonates as sincere and palpable, given the fine balance he achieves between interacting with his tormentors and a dismissive Olivia and his private moments of personal revelation. Masterful direction of an artist giving his all to a role that often gets one-dimensional short shrift turns Ward’s performance into a tour-de-force. As the gang of Malvolio’s rakish tormentors, J. Brent Alford (Sir Toby Belch), Emily Gray (Maria), Brandon Murphy (Feste) and Richard Haratine (Sir Andrew) plot together as the demented stooges of demonic retribution gone way over the top, each giving a worthy dastardly portrayal while building a reality of demented conspiratorial unity. Similarly, the duel scene between Richard Haratine as foppish peacock of a suitor Sir Andrew and Kelsey Milbourn in the trousers role of Viola provides one of the funniest moments in the production. Their tortured, bumbling reluctance to spar ‘as men’ reveals more about each character and the frailties of human ego and so-called masculine behavior than a pageful of expositional dialogue ever would. Director Hackler knows exactly where he’s carrying his cast in gender send-up in every scene but offers his actors (and fight choreographer Jeffrey Colangelo) the open–ended freedom to define, refine, explore and land secure in physical comedy, blending individual characterization and the play’s themes with clarity. Trust and exuberance spill off of every actor in the production, from leads to ensemble, sweeping the audience along in fully engaged delight. Humans are such silly creatures when it comes to affairs of the heart. Kelsey Milbourn, the only “straight man” in the show as cross-dressing Viola, wears her heart unflinchingly on her elegant sleeve as she falls honestly for the love-besotted, emo-style Count Orsino (Garrett Storms, in fine manic comic form) and fends off the ardent advances of the determined but sadly mistaken Lady Olivia.
So what of actor Blake Hackler as Olivia? He embodies this character’s reality better than most women actors I have seen play it, with sincere depth and feminine nuance, bringing a fresh, sensual energy to one often developed as a humorless, sullen recluse. Hackler’s Olivia knows how to flirt and relishes the chance to do so after resisting Orsino’s relentless, nauseating advances. Hackler delves into how Olivia just can’t figure out why the object of her affection won’t reciprocate. The joke, with audience in on it, is on her, particularly as she can’t seem to tell the brother from his sister and ends up bedding the only “willing” one of the two. The full cast seems fearlessly on fire, inspired by Hackler’s Olivia’s pathetic consternation and comic presence, full of adamant ferocity with no hint of a “drag” persona. TSF’s production is a divineTwelfth Night. I am sad I did not get to see Jessica Turner as Olivia. I’m thrilled I saw Blake Hackler in the role. His “save” of the show by playing Olivia demonstrates serendipity to the max. He directed and acts in a Twelfth Night I will recall with many a fond chuckle, as one of the best in a decade’s span of sterling productions by Trinity Shakespeare Festival. I am encouraged by how we as a national arts community strive to grow beyond restrictive stereotyped portrayals, or “gender ownership” of roles, in the hope that theatre can blaze a path to more tolerance and respect for diversity across our entire society. I commend Trinity Shakespeare Festival for trusting this bold actor/director with Twelfth Night in their final season. Costume, set, sound and lighting design? Impeccable, professional and primed to reinforce the play’s themes and style, as always. Bless all of you.
Review of Romeo and Juliet to follow shortly.
Review of TSF 2017, with Richard III:
Info on Theatre Unbound: http://theatreunbound.com
NY Times article about Mark Rylance playing Olivia: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/15/theater/how-mark-rylance-became-olivia-onstage.html
TSF Photos by Amy Peterson
TRINITY SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL runs through July 8, 2018, at TCU in Fort Worth
Romeo & Juliet and Twelfth Night in repertory