Pity Viola in Red Deer College’s most excellent production of Twelfth Night, which opened on Thursday at the RDC Arts Centre.
Shakespeare’s plucky cross-dressing heroine is caught in a sticky conundrum.
She’s pretending to be a boy called Cesario, who is hired by the Duke Orsino to court a reluctant maid called Olivia on his behalf.
But Viola develops the hots for her employer, herself. “Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife,” she sighs.
Just as Viola is doing her best to keep her inappropriate feelings in check, every time she turns around she sees the duke has doffed his shirt and is standing before her half-naked.
One minute Orsino’s pressing weights, sweat glistening off his pecs, the next he’s thrown his arm around her, pressing her face against his bare chest.
Dear, oh dear. What’s a girl-dressed-as-a-boy to do?
In the case of this production, imaginatively conceived by Calgary-based guest director Duval Lang, Viola (played by Natascha Schulmeister) ramps up the laughs.
Her evident discomfort grows by the minute as Duke Orsino (Derick Neumeier) motions for Viola/Cesario to hold his legs as he does ab crunches, and then demands a shoulder rub.
This is Shakespeare as many people have never seen it — a highly enjoyable, accessible production, right from the opening shipwreck scene, which is performed to a sultry version of Billy Idol’s White Wedding.
Lang’s irreverent, steampunk-driven Twelfth Night, with fantastic costumes and a steel and wire set that looks both post-industrial and otherworldly, gets the Bard’s slapstick intentions right — and even the cadence of his language.
The young actors clearly understand the words they are spouting (although many could stand to slow down their speech for the sake of clarity).
When those on stage comprehend the script, even without catching every word, the audience gets the gist of Shakespeare’s convoluted comedy, in which everybody falls for the wrong somebody.
Other scenes also left the crowd laughing out loud at Wednesday night’s dress rehearsal — such as when Olivia’s priggish steward Malvolio is duped into thinking his mistress is in love with him, and would like nothing better than to see him smiling and wearing yellow socks.
Out steps a freakishly groomed Malvolio (Riley MacDonnell). Grinning like an idiot and resembling AC/DC’s short-pant-sporting lead guitarist, he proceeds to stalk the aghast Olivia like a crazed Pepe Le Pew who won’t take no for an answer.
There’s also an unexpectedly earthy scene in which Olivia (Tori Grebinski) throws herself at Viola, whom she thinks is the comely young man Cesario. More accurately, Olivia throws herself under Cesario.
There are sword fight scenes that are played for laughs and thrills.
And there are memorable moments provided by buffoonish drunk Sir Toby Belch (Dan Vasquez), and his whining, foppish cohort, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Chris LeVann), who is dressed in a dizzying array of mismatched plaids.
All of the student performances are praiseworthy — including Chantelle Waschuk’s jester, Feste, who has a beautiful voice and a nice comic touch.
Given the anachronisms in this production, it would have been nice to hear Feste rock out with O Mistress Mine, instead of singing the standard acoustic version, but it’s a small point considering all the other innovations.
Costumer Brian Bast and set designer Carrie Hamilton have outdone themselves making a Jules Verne-like country out of Illyria.
And director Lang has done RDC Theatre Studies students a great service by setting the bar so high, and watching his young cast rise so capably to the challenge.