Student troupe opens season with its namesake

The What You Will Shakespeare Company (WYW), one of the student-run theatre troupes on the University of Illinois campus, opened their season this weekend with a crowd-pleaser, William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will. It seemed apt that the itinerant troupe opened with the play from which their namesake is derived. The production featured a spare set and simple staging, complemented by live musicians (comprised of piano, flute, and violin), and a strong ensemble performance.

WYW, as an entirely student-operated company, has no dedicated performance space. This actually makes for consistently interesting productions in terms of staging. Often the group reserves an interesting local building, foyer or decorative hallway in one of the many historic buildings on the UIUC campus to adapt to their bare-bones productions. Twelfth Night took place in the Tudor-style upstairs hall of the restaurant at the Channing-Murray Foundation. By day, this space functions as a Unitarian Universalism chapel; the heavy banister and simple oak dais were put to interesting and effective use. Scenes marked by the antagonisms between Maria (Nora Ellis), Sir Toby (John Jager), Sir Andrew (Patrick Harris), and Malvolio (Nathan Luft) used the banister well to magnify a humor of the body. For example, Fabian (Liz Porter), Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew move about behind the high banister–here representing some hedgerows–while they watch Malvolio pine over Maria’s epistolary forgery. Every time Malvolio rotates in their direction, the whole group absolutely commits to hitting the deck with a shocking abruptness that consistently had the audience giggling.

Aside from the space itself, the only additional set pieces were a large table and a few chairs. The table was adjusted to a slight angle to gesture as to whether we were in Orsino’s or Olivia’s–an understated move that put stock in audiences’ imaginations. Also, Jager’s boisterously jovial and believably drunk Sir Toby played well off of Harris’ dead-pan Sir Andrew. Harris, who typically plays more serious roles, makes a smart choice of deploying his uniquely flat affect to create an understated Sir Andrew, allowing his jokes and puns to stand for themselves. Director Liana Alcantara takes a purist comedic approach to the text rather than playing up the dark comedy elements of Malvolio, Feste (Ian Pozdol) and Antonio (Anna Rose Floeter). Luft’s Malvolio is likable and works to promote a consistently good-humored tone throughout the production despite this flattening of tensions.

The well-rounded ensemble was supported by well-cast romantic leads. Orsino (Casey Theil) and Sebastian (Xander Franklin), while hamming it up at times, both found a nice balance to their characters combining leader with lover. Veteran performer Sarah Robinson lent the production some gravitas with her Olivia, but it was Sara Boland-Taylor’s Viola that nearly stole the show. She showed herself a close reader of the text and capitalized on a humorous whiney-yet-effervescent femininity to throw the problems and chaos of cross-dressing into relief. Much of the cast are newcomers to WYW, and many of them will be in the company’s production of Moliere’s Tartuffe later this fall. I am excited to see what the group will do with the popular but controversial socio-economic French comedy. Able to pull off Shakespeare’s best play to bring along a date to, odds seem good that the rest of the season may be equally fruitful.

Ionesco classics — “The Bald Soprano” and “The Lesson” — kick-off Krannert season

An absurdist double-header marked the opening of Krannert’s Season of Classics, as presented by the University of Illinois Department of Theatre. Full disclosure: I must be honest that my personal tastes are not for postwar theatre of the absurd. Once I realized what I had gotten myself into, I found it hard to separate myself from the dislike of genre to take in the performances. I don’t find representations of fragmentary and unproductive art, well, productive in its extreme operation. This may be an issue of generational influences: for much of the production the laughter came from the geriatric mix, perhaps because they aren’t so fraught with the epistemology of the moment.

The Bald Soprano and The Lesson are two separate one-act plays by Beckett-esque playwright Eugène Ionesco, both concerned with competing authorities of linguistic semiotics. This pairing has precedent, since 1957 in fact it has been in a continuous run in Paris. They are a somewhat unbalanced pair in what is admittedly an unbalanced season of “classics” for the Department of Theatre. The next production is a cobbled-together semi-adaptation of the lost women of Greek Tragedy, followed closely by not one but three Shakespeare or Shakespeare-influenced adaptations, and concluded with a grammatically-informed Victorian comedy. One could perhaps call this a season of language, but no debates about what comprises a “classic” are as yet discernible at this early stage.

If anything can be said, it is that Moon Jung Kim’s sets, particularly for The Bald Soprano, are beautiful, thoughtful and functional. The ensemble is not entirely balanced, with the strength of experience sometimes painfully apparent in some of the performances. Neala Barron’s (Mrs. Smith) performance as the lead in last season’s A History of the American Film was exceptional, but it seems again she is relied to heavily upon to carry a production inherently dependent on a balanced ensemble. Her sense of presence at times looms large over her counterparts, despite Jeremiah Lowry’s efforts to keep up. His quirky pronunciation of common place works, such as “doorbell” helped to reengage the audience, but the schtick of wild and non-referential gestures were more frustrating than humorous or meaningful. But I suppose that is the point: the play is concerned with the politics of who gets to make meaning. But the confusions and acts of mirroring were almost too alike at times, too homogenized, making it hard for any performance to stand out, or throw relief on others.

Likewise, The Lesson is concerned with the politics of who assigns meaning. Staged as a conversation between a private student and her professor, the play attempts to stage the breakdowns in language, and the performance itself mirrors the unproductivity of the dialogue–“philology leads to disaster.” For example, the student (Jaclyn Holtzman) cannot comprehend the concept of subtraction, but can provide the right answers anyway. She has memorized all the possible outcomes rather than understanding reason for them–making this a more appropriate theme for the college students in the spectating mix. Her tween whine and squeak is nicely balanced by Doug West’s (The Professor) pitchy and predictable cadence. While a more balanced pair in terms of casting of individual caricatures, their renditions are a bit heavily dependent on the unique voice pitches and rhythms.

Again, this does help to emphasize the pay’s interest in the tyranny of language. The scene of linguistic rape was particularly well-done, however, taking on a much darker tone than Soprano: the text makes analogous parts of mouth used for speech with parts of the female body. The Professor’s description of language is paired with the Students writhing on the edge of the table while he faces away. When she is eventually stabbed, it is the chalkboard, the sight of semiotic blurring, that bleeds and not her–another act of displacing meaning. Both plays also evade any sort of cogent ending; their is no possible way to end them. Acts of repetition or destruction are then the only options. We are left with a pair of plays of unending repetition: while cogently executed, they still left me with my wheels spinning.