Photo by TCMcG Photography
Midsommer Flight, the little company that loves putting on quality free—or pay-what-you-can—Shakespeare for the enjoyment of the masses, has returned with its annual production of the Bard’s Twelfth Night, staged as always at the Lincoln Park Conservatory. And, as always, the patrons in the Conservatory’s Show Room are treated to a rollicking good time by a cast of talented performers having the times of their lives.
Each year, Midsommer’s Twelfth Night gets a makeover from a new director, who brings a unique focus to the piece. This year, it was Bex Ehrmann, who said that their goal was “queering the Bard in an effort to tell a more expansive story.” The director’s plan to accomplish this included casting (along with casting director Catherine Miller) trans or non-binary actors as the separated twins Sebastion and Viola. (Since Viola spends the play disguised as a man named Cesario, the gender play is fabulously vibrant.) Trans and LGB actors also appear in other key roles, creating a wonderfully diverse and inclusive cast.
But a diverse cast only goes so far if they don’t tell the story well. Not to worry, though: Ehrmann’s troupe (which also features musicians who play for the arriving audience in a pre-show and throughout the play) is more than up to the challenge, each of them claiming these oft-performed roles as their own. As Cesario/Viola, Maddy Shilts easily conveys the character’s inner confusion, not only playing a woman who is pretending to be a man to survive in a new place after a shipwreck that they believes claimed the life of their brother, but they find themself in love with the man in whose service they have settled, Orsino (a tremendous comic turn by John Drea). As if this in and of itself isn’t crazy enough, Orsino sends her to woo on his behalf the lady Olivia (Ebby Offord), whose subsequent and unsurprising—this is Shakespeare after all—infatuation with Cesario complicates the plot even as it enlivens her performance.
Every one of the actors in this company provides wonderful and memorable interpretations of their classic roles. North Homewood (full disclosure: he’s my son) as Feste the Clown relies as much on his strong singing voice as on his ability to deliver quips and insults in a role that has been made a bit darker than usual with editing, but he maintains Feste’s joy of clever repartée and sheer silliness such as punking the self-important Malvolio (Rusty Allen tossing his ego to the curb as he creates a living caricature). Others, like Reginald Hemphill’s Sir Toby Belch and Travis Shanahan’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek—two characters whose very names give their roles here away—as well as Laurel S. Barrett’s Antonia, and Rae Hamilton-Vargo as Viola’s twin brother Sebastian, who is somewhat less dead than she had thought, simply revel in the silly twists and turns of the convoluted plot of this adorably goofy comedy. Becca Duff (as Fabian) and Jessica Love (as lady-in-waiting Maria) have a lot of fun with their scheming characters as well.
One of Ehrmann’s best moves here was to use and tweak the original music for the show. Compositions by Elizabeth Rentfro and Alex Mauney have been part of this annual production for years, and this year they are joined by music director Jack Morsovillo’s raucous, punk version of “Under the Greenwood Tree, which will have you wanting to sing along. In fact, the songs are so much a part of this joyous production that the play is practically a musical. This year’s version of Twelfth Night is a night full of laughter, mistaken identity, and lovely music, set among the plants and flowers of the conservatory. Tickets (pay what you can with a $30 suggested donation) are available from Midsommer Flight. The Lincoln Park Conservatory is located at 2391 N. Stockton Drive, Chicago 60614.