Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region  

Alex McCooeye, Paul Rainville, Kayvon Kelly, Paula-Jean Prudat

Photo Andrée Lanthier

Static it’s not. Life-sized cut-outs of Illyrian townspeople drift across the scene. Paintings in Duke Orsino’s palace spring to life. A couple of castle-topped hills, craggy faces etched into their steep sides, slip across the stage for a brief encounter.

In fact, this immensely imaginative and hilarious production of William Shakespeare’s romantic comedy Twelfth Night doesn’t even have an intermission. Instead — rare treat in our attention-deficit era! – we get to relish the play in one two-hour swoop.

You know the story, right? Siblings Viola and Sebastian are shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria. Disguising herself as a man (Cesario), Viola lands a job with Duke Orsino who’s smitten with unrequited love for the Countess Olivia. Cesario pleads Orsino’s case to Olivia who in turn falls for Cesario just as Viola has fallen for Orsino. There’s a bunch of other characters including Olivia’s dipsomaniacal uncle Sir Toby Belch, his space cadet pal Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Olivia’s stuffy steward Malvolio. Disguise, misdirected affections and a lack of self-knowledge are the order of the day, with all coming right in the end.

The production, directed with lively good humour by NAC English Theatre artistic director Jillian Keiley and featuring the English Theatre’s 2015-16 Ensemble, is described in the programme as being “imagined by The Old Trout Puppet Workshop.” Strictly speaking, that means the Calgary-based company’s Judd Palmer and Pityu Kenderes designed the set, props and costumes.

In actuality, the Trouts’ mad touch is everywhere, from a spectacular cartoonish opening shipwreck straight out of The Tempest to the random stick puppets that dot the show and the brightly-hued, Monty Pythonesque castle walls, bushes and clouds that descend from the flies or are wheeled in from the wings with regularity. It’s no exaggeration to say the set is a kind of giant puppet, a largely good-natured, frequently tongue-in-cheek character in its own right that helps carry the narrative while obliquely commenting on the absurdities afoot in Illyria.

The Trouts also dreamed up the gilt proscenium arch that frames the story. Based on the Baroque Český Krumlov theatre in the Czech Republic, it straddles much of the stage but leaves enough room on either side for us to see bits of behind-the-scenes stuff: a ladder; a couple of dressmakers’ dummies; actors, minus their exuberant costumes and flowing wigs (the production is situated in the late 17th century Restoration), tugging on the ropes to fly those set pieces up and down.

This exposed back-stage business, along with the Trouts’ playful treatment of sets, props and costumes, underscores the play’s concern with appearance and reality, with the masks we present and the people behind them. “Who does beguile you?” Cesario asks the lovelorn Olivia at one point. Olivia, of course, deceives herself and, like the other characters, must learn to see clearly.

Shakespeare’s tale remains at the heart of the production, interacting with but never overwhelmed by the design. Quincy Armorer’s soppy Orsino is mostly in love with the idea of being in love. Janelle Cooper gives us a no-nonsense Viola, and Amanda LeBlanc a playful, lusty Olivia. Cross-gartered, ridiculous and ultimately humiliated Malvolio is played by Bruce Dow who, like the rest of the cast, was getting as big a bang out of the animated audience on opening night as that audience was getting out of the performers. The play’s anarchic subplot is briskly handled by, among others, Paul Rainville as the obstreperous Sir Toby while Aguecheek is played to the foppish hilt by Alex McCooeye.

Others on stage include Kayvon Kelly as a pert Feste, Olivia’s fool. Bawdy and irreverent in the best fool tradition, he pricks pretensions with aplomb and spices his songs with late 20th century rock star moves.

But for a flat, overly measured confab between Olivia and Cesario at the end of Act One, the production is spirited. It’s fun. It’s adventurous. Not everyone will like the Trouts’ vivacious design or Keiley’s all-in direction. But one suspects that Shakespeare would have termed the whole thing a hoot.

Tickets: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca

Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen, Saturday, January 23,  2016