Making Shakespeare more accessible to contemporary audiences is a continual challenge for buffs of the Bard, be they educators or directors of ever-imaginative stage and screen productions.
In the Sacramento Shakespeare Festival’s current mounting of “Twelfth Night,” which continues through July 27 at the William A. Carroll Amphitheatre in William Land Park, director Matt K. Miller has retained the original language of the early-17th-century comedy, but has updated its sound and look from lutes and leggings to synthesizers and Angels Flights.
Think Old Globe meets Studio 54.
“Twelfth Night” (also known as “What You Will”) lends itself to Miller’s music-saturated, “shake-your-groove-thang” treatment as its conception is widely considered to have been an all-singing, all-dancing yuletide confection written for the close of the holiday season.
The play opens with the recently shipwrecked Viola (Kelley Ogden) making a bold decision for a young aristocrat: she will throw off the trappings of her well-to-do upbringing, and make her own way in the world disguised as a young man (“Cesario”). She gains employment as a page to Duke Orsino (Christian McLaurin), who in this version is owner of a fabulous New York disco called Orsino’s (as befits the duke’s ego).
“Viola is a stranger in a strange land,” said Ogden, an accomplished actress-director-producer who’s making her Sacramento Shakespeare Festival debut. “She’s lost her twin brother, and is among people she does not know. She’s truly alone for the first time in her life. She dresses as a young man to ingratiate herself into the court for protection. Though she’s wearing her brother’s clothes – which are in the fashion of John Travolta’s white, three-piece suit from ‘Saturday Night Fever’ – her arc, her journey is the same as specified in Shakespeare’s original script.”
Characters adopting gender-bending disguises is a common convention in Shakespearean productions, but the success of actors cast in these dual roles isn’t just about clever costumes or time-shifted settings.
“When I was first presented with the opportunity of directing ‘Twelfth Night,’ I said to myself, ‘If I could get Kelley Ogden for Viola, half my work would be done,’” said Miller, an unabashed Ogden fan who went on to say that the multi-talented performer’s “game spirit” and “big heart” are evident in every role she plays.
“Thank goodness she was willing and available,” Miller continued. “Having seen her many times onstage, I knew what a deft comedienne she is, and that she could also pull off the sexual ambiguity. Couple those assets with a natural facility with Shakespeare’s language and you have a Viola I would put up against anyone’s. Not to mention that she does it all in 4-inch platforms!”
Ogden said Miller’s plan for a disco-era update was kept secret until the first table read, but was met with great anticipation by the cast and crew who devoured YouTube videos of vintage “Soul Train” clips, as well as Internet searches of such phenomena as roller disco, silky Qiana ensembles, and carefully coiffed kids doing the Hustle.
“We were all excited,” Ogden said, noting that while she had never before performed the show, she had delivered some of its better-known monologues in years past. “I think every actress has a speech from it in their back pocket.”
During rehearsals, Ogden said she grew to admire Viola more and more, and considers her a role model for women of any era.
“She’s incredibly smart, and faces adversity head-on,” said Ogden. “She’s described as quick-witted, and I admire that. She’s a person who carries a lot of vulnerability throughout the show. She finds herself in these extreme situations, yet she’s always trying to do the right thing. It’s a very worthwhile characteristic. To me, she has a lot of heart and I love that.”
Working with Miller is also a first for Ogden, though they had become friends as colleagues in Sacramento’s close-knit theater community.
“We’ve always been looking for the opportunity to collaborate,” she said. “Matt’s a big reason why I read for the show. He really is fabulous. Not having done Shakespeare for a while, he’s exactly what I had hoped for in a director.”
“When I returned to a Shakespearean play, I wanted to be sure it was with a director who’s based in the text,” she continued. “He is incredibly knowledgeable about the text and the needs of the script. I could come to him with a series of questions, and he’d have the answers. I’ve learned so much working with him as the director, and have come away stronger as a performer.”
“Have I mentioned I love Matt Miller?”
Acting alongside a cast largely culled from Sacramento City College and other local schools, was another attractive enticement that prompted Ogden to accept a role in “Twelfth Night.”
“I’ve always loved the environment of educational theater,” said Ogden, executive director and co-founder of Sacramento’s KOLT Run Creations. “My parents and step-parents are theater educators, actors – stunt people. They’ve pretty much done everything. That’s the world I’ve grown up in. There’s a great energy here in which to surround yourself.
“It’s not about you; it’s about the group collective. And there’s so much fun exploring with the students. I love that – I love that.”
"Twelfth Night" continues through July 27, 2013, with performances at 8 p.m. July 20, July 25 and July 27. For ticket information, click here.
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