“If music be the food of love, play on.” So begins William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will. The latest Charleston production includes all three: food, love, and frivolity. The newly-formed Holy City Shakespeare and PURE Theatre collaborated on the rendition that debuted downtown at the Charleston Library Society on Saturday night. It is not a traditional performance: the players have scripts, and it often has the feel of a very good rehearsal. (The play is a fundraiser for an upcoming production of Hamlet.) To that end, the style is minimal, and the presentation relaxed.
Still, it’s fun. The $20 ticket includes a drink and light refreshments, so audience members can settle in and listen as HCS’s founder Laura Rose, pre-performance, explains the informality of the production and that “actors learn by acting.” During the 10-minute intermission, Rose encouraged audience members to interact with the actors and, in keeping with Twelfth Night revelry, to have more refreshments.
The 12 performers sit in chairs facing the audience. Since they are in character only onstage, when they sit back down they respond to and laugh at the humorous bits as audience members, which can be somewhat distracting, as it feels at times too much like canned laughter.
The production is refreshing, though: no frills, nor attempts at British accents. Music and costumes hint at a 1920s, gangster era. For example, romantic 1920s music plays in the background in a scene with Viola and Orsino in which both have cigars. Local musician Don Whitley plays on his ukulele and sings lighthearted 1920s songs. (Songs include “Paper Moon” at the beginning, and the last song is to the melody of “Singin’ in the Rain,” to give you some idea.)
Though a familiarity of the play helps, it is not essential. The most successful actors were those who knew their lines well enough to illuminate the story and not to distract by relying on the script. HCS’s founder and Artistic and Educational Director Laura Rose plays the cross-dressing Viola with such passion and attention to language and nuance as to make plot points clear even to audience members unfamiliar with the play. Sarah Coe, in rainbow suspenders, does a swell job as Feste, the Clown. Coe has a nice voice, both in her singing and in her comic impersonation of her character’s personas toward the end of the play. Randy Neale, as Sir Toby Belch and City Paper contributor Michael Smallwood, as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, are hilarious in their ne’er-do-well, drunkenly roles. Neale plays a convincing Sir Toby Belch (complete with belch), and Smallwood’s interpretation of his character as an artless, adorably naïve dunce, is spot-on and never falters. The talented Sharon Graci (co-founder and artistic director of PURE Theatre) shines as a strong and believable love-struck Olivia. Maggie Borden is funny (especially in the second act) in her trickster role as Maria, Olivia’s cunning servant. Sixth grader Emily Stark, in an array of disguises and accents, shows flexibility as a budding actor in her assorted parts of Valentina, Officer, Priest, and Servant.
While at times the acting was uneven (a few actors, though promising, hadn’t yet fully realized their characters; a few times lines were garbled; and the Malvolio subplot seemed less comic and somewhat like the bullying we’ve been hearing about in the news), overall the performance is worthwhile. At its best, it’s sparkling and delightful. Go to the performance — the next one is on May 20 at 3:30 p.m. at PURE Theatre. Holy City Shakespeare and PURE Theatre are deserving of the city’s artistic support.