Shake on the Lake opens playful, entertaining ‘Twelfth Night’

With snippets of songs from rock bands Aerosmith and the B-52s and – for opening night in Geneseo - references to Kelly’s Saloon, Shake on the Lake’s production of “Twelfth Night” is not the Shakespeare you feared in high school. 

It is, instead, entertaining and not at all intimidating.

“These guys are bringing something you think is dead and long gone and making it modern,” said Marsha Abe of Geneseo, who attended Shake on the Lake’s opening night. 

“Twelfth Night,” the fifth summer production from Perry-based Shake on the Lake, is a comedy about the madness of love that involves separated fraternal twins, mismatched lovers, mistaken identities, jealousy, fights and duels. 

About 60 people attended opening night July 28, a balmy mid-summer evening outside the Wadsworth Homestead in Geneseo. The audience, which included visitors from Canandaigua and Little Rock, Ark., was a mix of returning theatergoers, such as Abe, and first timers such as Mary Patrick-Grabowski of Geneseo.

“I heard it was a lot of fun. It looks pretty cool. The people look cool,” she said while watching the pre-show. “And any chance to come to the Homestead is appealing.”

Improv and humor

The pre-show, which begins a half-hour before each performance, introduces the cast as if they are members of a Shakespearean acting company. They perform contemporary songs, write poetry with audience members and engage in other hijinks, such as a marshmallow eating contest.

“I love Shakespeare, that’s all I really needed to go,” said Ron Smith of Canandaigua, who in addition to seeing the show also bested actor Jordy Neill – the conniving Sir Toby Belch in the play — in the marshmallow contest.

“Twelfth Night” features a cast of seven, with each actor taking on at least two roles. Samantha Harrington and Matthew Duncan play fraternal twins Viola and Sebastian, respectively, who each survive a shipwreck – though each thinks the other has perished – and find themselves arriving separately in Illyria. Viola disguises herself as a boy named Cesario and begins working for Duke Orsino (Vinny Mraz), with whom she falls in love. The Duke, however, is in love with Olivia (Sharon Combs), who herself falls for the disguised Viola. From there, hijinks ensue in a fast-paced production that wraps in about 80 minutes.

The cast also includes Fergie Philippe and Josh Marcks, both newcomers to the troupe.

“These guys are really talented,” Abe said of the cast. “I love the improv and the humor.”

Winking at tradition

Improv, local references and contemporary music may be more in the tradition of Shakespeare then some audience members realize.

“Shakespeare often referenced the pubs and places in London in his plays,” said Shake’s Interim Artistic Director Chad Bradford, who directs this year’s production. “This made the play immediate to his audience and provided some local fun.”

The Kelly’s Saloon references in Geneseo came up during rehearsal “and I thought it was a lovely nod to this tradition in Shakespeare,” Bradford said.

The reference to the Geneseo bar will be replaced by other local references in subsequent performances, which included shows in Dansville on Friday and Letchworth and Darien Lakes state parks on Saturday. Today, the production is at Orleans Marine Park in Kent. Performances continues Tuesday in Arcade, Wednesday in Attica and Thursday through Saturday in Silver Lake. The tour concludes Aug. 11 with a show in Springville.

“We are the Shakespeare festival for rural Western New York,” said Bradford, “so adding this touch, I hope, shows our audience the ownership they have with the company and that over the past five years we have become part of the community.”

The inclusion of contemporary music – Aerosmith’s “Dude, Looks Like a Lady” and The B-52’s “Love Shack” offer humorous winks at the “Twelfth Night” plot – acknowledges Shakespearian traditions.

“Using current music of the day in Shakespeare’s work is as old as the Bard himself. Music and songs of his time were put in the play to not only further the plot, but to draw the audience in with something enjoyable, fun and familiar,” Bradford said. “ … If Shakespeare were alive today, I have no doubt we would hear Celine Dion references and Justin Timberlake jokes.”

And audience interaction is not limited to the pre-show. Several times actors exited or entered past the audience and in one scene – in which a trick is played on Olivia’s puritanical steward – the troublemakers hide out among the audience.

“At Shake on the Lake we think of theater as a living art form,” said Bradford. “Shakespeare’s texts are living texts, not dead pieces of literature. In making them fun and unique and immediate for the audience, it’s truly and sincerely my goal to actually use all of Shakespeare’s traditions to keep it as contemporary as possible.”

And with it, dispel any notions that linger from high school English.

“When you read Shakespeare on the page it can be hard to understand. But seeing a performance, the language no longer seems difficult and their interpretation of Shakespeare gives it added humor,” said Rachel Jones, who accompanied her 7-year-old daughter Lena to the youth’s first Shakespeare production. “It was very entertaining and not intimidating.”


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