Review: Twelfth Night by Scottish Rite Theater
by Michael Meigs

poster, Scottish Rite Theatre

Twelfth Night, just opened at the convenient downtown location close to the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum, is a graceful, sprightly production of Shakespeare's comedy of parted twins, mistaken identities, and the merciless mocking of overweening ambition. This is the one in which the dour Malvolio, steward to Lady Olivia, is duped by two roysters into smiling, making love overtures to his lady, and appearing in yellow stockings, all cross gartered. And Viola, shipwrecked, masquerades as a boy in order to enter the service of Duke Orsino -- and falls in love with same.

Shannon Grounds as Olivia/"Cesario" (left) carries the action deftly. She undertakes her masquerade in a spirit of adventure but encounters earnest confusion as she falls for Orsino but Lady Olivia (Suzanne Balling, right) falls for her as "Cesario." Balling is diminutive, lively and a delight -- her growing fascination of Orsino's comely messenger "Cesario" moves her out of long mourning into hope and demure flirting. 


This being a romantic comedy, Shakespeare gives her the ultimate chance for joy: the eventual just-in-time appearance of the male twin to "Cesario," the eligible bachelor Sebastian (Ryan Crowder). The sparkle in Olivia's eyes here is a hint of the sly delights of her performance. Outcome: Orsino and Olivia each wed a twin. The one of the opposite sex, of course.

Director (yclept "Master of Play" in the program) Beth Burns has just relocated to Austin from Los Angeles. She achieves with this talented and attractive ensemble a quick-paced, highly entertaining and almost too short evening of entertainment.

The evening takes as guidance the opening words of Orsino, If music be the food of love, play on. A four-member musical consort welcomes the public into the lobby with renaissance and pseudo-renaissance music. The group accompanies song and dance during the play and provides the jubilation for a curtain call done in dance. 

The Scottish Rite theatre itself seemed to me a relatively strange performance space. On the one hand, the company had the use of beautifully painted backdrops and legs that created wonderfully detailed scenes. I am guessing that these were created over a long period for use by the Scottish Rite Children’s theatre. The multiple levels and the detailed tromp l’oeuil painting offer us enchanting perspectives within the proscenium. They recall the intricate mysteries of Victorian-era puppet shows. For example, before the action began:

The beach after the shipwreck:

The forest, as Maria the servant regales Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek: 


and the Duke's chambers:

A wide flight of wooden steps connects that magic proscenium-framed world with the auditorium. The movable seating in the forefront of the 200-seat theatre was arranged so as to provide a wide, deep open space in the midst of the seating. This was the equivalent of a “thrust” stage – but it meant that those of us seated in front row, center, found ourselves at least thirty feet from the stage. The views above are all taken from front row, center.

I prefer to sit as close to the acting as possible. Can’t help it; it’s the addiction of an actor. In Shakespeare’s day, if I’d had the means, I probably would have been one of those lace-handkerchief would-be dandies leaning back on a chair at the edge of the stage itself. So I was disappointed to find that only rarely did director Beth Burns put the action out into that big empty space fronted and flanked by the audience. The most typical use of that thrust space was that signaled in the text by Exit (singular) or Exeunt (plural). Given the disposition of the seats, the actors always had to hustle – added to thirty feet of thrust was another thirty feet of aisle.

Twelfth Night offers a richness of fools. The official fool, Feste, is the least foolish of them. As personified by Justin Scalise, Feste is a sober, witty wraith with a fine singing voice. Far more farcical are Michael Mergin (right)playing rapscallion knight Sir Toby Belch and Judd Farris (left) as the earnest, stupid suitor Andrew Aguecheek (a fine study in slowly firing synapses). 

Robert MatneyAnd then there is Malvolio, the self-important steward who is so cruelly misled by Maria the serving woman (bravo to Jill K. Swanson for her twinkling mischief). She counterfeits the letter to Malvolio that prompts him to put on ridiculous attire, paint his face, and put on a smile almost painful to observe. The baiting and humiliation of Malvolio is the dark side of this comedy. It occurs relatively late in the action; the castle force and jester Feste imprison Malvolio and mock him further; and at the happy resolution of everyone else’s quandaries, the lovely Olivia perceives and explains the cruel trick. Shakespeare gives Malvolio a horrible exit line: “I will be revenged on the whole pack of you.”

Robert MatneySo how does a company play that dark vein in this otherwise frothy, colorful confection? In Shakespeare’s day, Malvolio was probably a haughty, hissing horrible guy. After all, “mal voglio” in Italian is, roughly, “ill will.”

In this presentation, director Burns and actor Robert Matney are very delicate with Malvolio. He comes across as thoughtful and gently deluded, that sort of nice guy who is just, well, clueless. When he has no streak of mean, how do you handle his defeat? In this presentation, he kneels to Lady Olivia and tenders in resignation the chain that is his emblem of office. And you choreograph your curtain call as a sort of Morris dance, with Malvolio taking part, as if he didn’t really mean it with that final imprecation. This doesn’t really resolve the problem, but it does remind us that the evening is all in fun.

Elizabeth Cobbe's review in the Austin Chronicle, August 15

Spike Gillespie's review in the, August 14

Joey Seiler's comment (far short of a review) in the Austin Statesman, August 11

NOTE: Thanks and a tip of the hat to Gordon Kelso, Executive Director at the Scottish Rite Theatre, who kindly provided further information about the theatre and its scenery:



"The scenery you enjoyed throughout the production was painted in 1882...and installed in our space in 1910... Our old theatre was built in 1869 (3 years after Scholz's Garten) by the German community as the Turn Verein...a German opera house and activity center [locally referred to in those days as Turner Hall]...naturally, there was beer served...lots of it, because the entire block qualified as the beer garten. The Sangerunde Singers were formed there and, believing they needed their own space for rehearsal and entertainment, they moved down the hill to Scholz's, purchased the adjacent property and built their space along with a bowling alley (the lintel still reads 1879), too, is still in use!...a tribute to Austin's early German influence."

Twelfth Night, or What You Will
by William Shakespeare
Scottish Rite Theater

August 01 - August 17, 2008
Scottish Rite Theater
207 West 18th Street
Austin, TX, 78701