Savage Rose Puts Script First in “Twelfth Night”

In William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” a woman disguises herself as a man to make her way in the world. It’s a fairly standard trope for Shakespeare’s comedies, this being one of his most popular.

There’s a note of irony here, then, that Savage Rose Classical Theatre Company opens its 2013-2014 “Season of Storms” with the play. Savage Rose’s mission is to perform plays from the classical periods of theatre history without dressing them in false clothes. Minimal pretense, minimal filter, no tacked-on artifice. There are no Capulets or Montagues having shootouts on the beach. No Nazis. No motorcycles.

In a Savage Rose production, the playwright’s words are the focus, the story that is to be told as directly as possible in the style originally intended. Savage Rose aims to show its audience that “classical” means perpetually relevant and perpetually entertaining.

And there is much in “Twelfth Night” that is immediately engrossing. Broadly a story about love and the extraordinary things people will do for it, the play revolves around Viola, a shipwreck survivor who dons the male guise of “Cesario” and enters into the service of the nobleman Orsino. Orsino puts Viola to work ferrying love letters to his unrequited, Olivia. But this love soon takes on geometric complications as Viola finds herself falling for Orsino – and Olivia falls for Cesario.

The other side of the romantic polyhedron belongs to Malvolio, Olivia’s priggish and prudish servant of whom the other members of her household are not fans. The collection of clowns concocts an extended prank to make Malvolio believe Olivia has fallen for him. In his mistaken efforts to return her affections, they make him appear, simply put, mad for her. In classic Shakespearean fashion, misunderstandings are resolved, love wins out and marriages happen. Oh – there’s also a twin involved.

The company’s fifth season is centralized around Shakespeare, foremost of the Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights whose scripts form the spine of its output. The “Season of Storms” includes “King Lear” in March and “The Tempest” in June 2014. In past seasons, the company has produced works as far back as “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes, the original bawdy dramatist of ancient Greece, and as recent as Irish absurdist Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape.”

The company no doubt derives much of its institutional knowledge of period dramas from teaching about them. Savage Rose founder J. Barrett Cooper, “Twelfth Night” director Charlie Sexton and a vast portion of the “Twelfth Night” cast are instructors in the conservatory program for youth actors at Walden Theatre.

Actress Julane Havens, who plays Viola in “Twelfth Night,” finds it fitting that their production opens the week of the students’ own showcase performances. “The students get to watch the teachers, and the teachers get to watch the students,” she says.

Sexton, pulling double duty directing and playing Sir Toby Belch at night while leading the conservatory during the day, originally played Sir Toby 20 years ago as a Walden student. “Twelfth Night” marks his return to the stage after 13 years of focusing his energies on running the school. “It’s not like I haven’t wanted to do it (return to acting),” Sexton says. “And now that I’m doing it, I want to do it more.

“It’s really fun to put the theories you teach into practice,” he says. “We have a whole new generation of Walden students seeing me and all their instructors onstage.”

Sexton actually ended up in the role by happenstance. When the original Sir Toby dropped out of the show, the cast insisted he take on the part. “An actor just focuses on his role, while a director is focused on the whole play,” he says. “It’s been a challenge, but a great one.

“Though I did catch myself being onstage and moving people around,” he adds humorously.

The actors’ familiarity both as coworkers and in past casts together made everyones’ jobs easier. For Havens, who describes Viola as a “bucket list” role, it took pressure away playing the well-known part and allowed her to find the honesty in it.

“Working with my friends and colleagues lets me do my best work,” she says. “I can jump right in with both feet with this company.”

Though “Twelfth Night” features a group of people with a rich history together, Savage Rose is not a closed company, Havens says. “Show to show, it’s a little different. We like to spread the wealth a good bit.”

Though for her, the local cast and simple approach make Savage Rose productions special. “Big-budget theatre doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination,” she says. “There’s still an element of play and imagination which makes theatre so great.”

“Twelfth Night”
Produced by the Savage Rose Classical Theatre Company
Directed by Charlie Sexton
At Walden Theatre, 1134 Payne Street
Dec. 19-20 at 7:30 p.m., Dec. 21 at 2 and 8 p.m.
Tickets available at www.savagerose.org