September 19, 2008

Borrowing From the Bard


"Shakespeare like you've never seen it performed before" -- that's how director John Flax describes Grottesco's 12th Night, the local theater ensemble's take on the Bard's well-known romantic comedy of errors, Twelfth Night. The description sounds plausible, given that this isn't officially a Shakespeare work -- it's Twelfth Night from the servants' perspective, written by Flax and the

participating performers, with some help from playwright Craig Barnes.

The original, written around 1600, goes something like this: our heroine, Viola, gets shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria, home to Duke Orsino. She dresses up as a man and gets a job as the duke's page. He's in love with the fair Olivia, so to aid him, Viola befriends her, but then she falls for Viola (thinking Viola's a man - - or so they say). The story makes room for a lost twin and buffoonish characters like Sir Toby Belch, Feste the fool, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek. The play also features some well-known quotes, including "If music be the food of love, play on," and "Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage."

Grottesco's 12th Night is the 25th-anniversary production for the company, which was founded in Paris in 1983 by Flax and Didier Maucort; Elizabeth Wiseman joined the troupe the following year. Maucort bowed out in the late 1980s to pursue a career in writing and performance, and Flax and Wiseman brought the company to America -- first

to Detroit, then to Santa Fe in 1996.

Since landing in Santa Fe, the ensemble -- known for incorporating a variety of theatrical styles in a blend of comedy and drama that addresses the plight of humanity trying to survive and thrive in this crazy world -- has presented evenings of short works (Keyholes, 2003), revivals of established shows (last year's Fortune: The Rise and Fall of a Small Fortune Cookie Factory was originally done here in the late 1990s), and new pieces (2005's A Dream Inside Another, which is based on short stories by Chilean writer Isabel Allende).

Grottesco's 12th Night started as one of those short pieces in Keyholes five years ago. Why choose to revamp this Shakespeare play? "There's a lot of material to pull from," Flax said. "Plus it's the Shakespeare comedy I knew the best." (He's been in a couple of productions of the play.)

What interested Flax and company was the story before and between the acts. How did Viola come

to be shipwrecked? Well, the lighthouse lamp had no oil, so it couldn't guide her ship safely past outlying rocks, according to Grottesco's version. What happened when the duke left his estate to woo Olivia? Apparently the servants took over, though they weren't sure what they were doing or why they were doing it.

And therein lies at least one message in Grottesco's version. "What happens when the people in charge let go of their responsibilities in favor of pet obsessions?" asked Grottesco member Rod Harrison. "What

happens to the servants? Do some just want to leave? Do some want to take charge?"

"And how well prepared are they to do that?" Flax added. "That's a big question for all of us today."

The servants end up enacting the love story of their superiors, impersonating the duke and Viola and Olivia and merging various other characters from Shakespeare's play. They act out, according to Flax, because "They're human beings. They can either bend to the mundane task at hand or make it

a little richer."

Left to their own devices, they show their true colors. There's some cruelty and some comedy, some love and a lot of lust. "The rich can afford this poetic, mooning view of love -- they have the luxury to address unrequited love with its ornate trimmings," Harrison said. "The servants are just screwing left and right. They're living."

Still, Flax maintains that the piece is wholesome -- so much so that the company is inviting a group of fifth and sixth graders to a special weekday matinee performance in October.

The company's style is to work on a new piece for at least a year, workshopping it via classes and exercises in historic theater forms like puppetry, mime, and commedia dell'arte. In the case of Grottesco's 12th Night, it started with putting together that short piece for Keyholes. Then, about a year ago, Flax outlined a more formal draft. Ensemble members -- Harrison, Charles Gamble, Kate Kita, Aimee Lasseigne, Joy Mills, and Mona Malec -- began working with Flax to reshape the piece through writing, improvising, and play. "What if?" became a constant query in the proceedings. Only in early September did the group finally put a stop to the editing process.

Flax said you don't have to know Shakespeare's play to enjoy this version. Barnes, who has written three period pieces about Queen Elizabeth I for the Red Thread Collective, helped the ensemble create authentic-sounding Elizabethan dialogue. The ensemble added a good deal of "simpler English that people would probably call modern," according to Kita. On top of that, Flax and Harrison estimate that there's still at least 25 percent of Shakespeare's original play in the text.

Still, purists may be put off. Harrison, who appeared in several Shakespeare in Santa Fe productions on the campus of St. John's College over the years, recalls patrons sitting in the front row with the text of the plays in their laps, reading along to see if the company was faithfully adhering to the script. "You could see them nodding and saying, 'Hmm. They cut this part out,' or 'They missed a line here,'" he said. "Those people may not be happy."

In a recent preview performance of selected scenes at the Santa Fe Opera's Stieren Hall, Flax told the audience that this show is really a lot of fun for a serious piece. Grottesco is renowned for its clowning, but for the company, it's vital that each play have a message beneath the mirth. "Most serious human emotions are riddled with comedy," Flax explained. "If you take that out, the results can be deadly." One scene, clearly inspired by the antics of the traveling commedia dell'arte players, involved Harrison's

futile attempts to wrest a bottle of wine away from an inebriated Gamble. Though it appeared to be s for shtick's sake, the byplay allowed the two performers to display an obvious affection for each other, in the manner of Laurel and Hardy.

So with its oblique references to the way we treat one another -- and the suggestion that the hoi polloi isn't paying enough attention to its leaders to know what to do if leaders suddenly up and leave town --

is Grottesco's 12th Night political art?

"Mona said something in rehearsal the other day that really nails it," Flax said. "She said, 'Grottesco does political theater by not giving all the answers, so people can think, and that's a political act.'"

"We ask the questions," Kita added.

Who provides the answers?

"Hopefully you will," Flax said. "We're counting on you.">>


>> Grottesco's 12th Night

>> Gala opening 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 19;

8 p.m. Saturday, Sunday & Thursday,

Sept. 20, 21 & 25; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays

through Oct. 5

>> Stieren Hall, Santa Fe Opera, seven miles north

of Santa Fe on U.S. 84/285

rsdays pay-what-you-wish,

opening gala $100 (includes postshow reception); 474-8400

Originally published by ROBERT NOTT I THE NEW MEXICAN.

(c) 2008 The Santa Fe New Mexican. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.