Arabian Shakes’ gets physical with Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’

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Viola (Kate Rose Reynolds) and Orsino (John R. Lewis) ponder the mysteries of love in Arabian Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Twelfth Night,” running in San Francisco through Nov. 18th. (Arabian Shakespeare Festival photo)

There is no one way to direct a play written by William Shakespeare. What is thrilling about directing a work by the Bard is that it’s an empty canvas. Stage directions in the text are minimal, and potential of the show is only limited by the creativity of the director and the producing company.

To say San Jose native Audrey Rumsby’s path through theatre and performance is unique would be an understatement on par with “Hamlet wanted to share a few words.” She did a lot of high school at DeAnza College, and basically went straight to her Master of Fine Arts in London. She also spent her early teen years performing in her parent’s company, San Jose Youth Shakespeare, still going strong since their first year in 2004.

Rumsby’s latest project is taking her to the other side of the Bay, where she is directing a production of “Twelfth Night, or What You Will” for Arabian Shakespeare Festival in San Francisco, now running through Nov. 18th. The story of misplaced love and mistaken identities set in the majestic wonderland of Ilyria is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved works, featuring one of the greatest female characters in the canon, the cross dressing Viola.

For Rumsby, her “Twelfth Night” blends the traditional Elizabethan period with a focus on movement rooted in Italian commedia dell’arte, with a cast of only six – five women and six men. And for this production, Italian commedia and Shakespeare were a perfect fit.

“It’s not hard to see the connection when you pick up a copy of (the play),” said Rumsby. “What was interesting to me is just how easy it was to connect “Twelfth Night” to the commedia characters. The opportunity had not quite arisen for this opportunity, and now it has.”

Artistic director William Brown was all in Rumsby’s concept immediately.

“Audrey felt that Viola is really the perfect woman, so if we accept that, what does it do to the other characters, what can we do with them?” said Brown. “That led to her using commedia style, where everything is bigger than life. We were able to latch into their core foibles coming out of their imperfections, which is where we really started.”

Rumsby looked at the most challenging way to double cast and settled on the fact that she wanted each actor to play their character’s opposite. Performing two extremely distinct characterizations based in distinct, traditional and trained physicality presented challenges that were both intimidating and thrilling.

“The biggest challenge has been pushing only six actors to tell a cohesive story with 12 different characters while also entertaining equally the physicality of the character,” said Rumsby. “You have to be so specific with every single choice, and each choice has to be played so that you have two completely unique and different people. To really sell the story, you must effectively convince us they are two completely different characters going through two completely different journeys.

For Brown, who is on multiple go arounds with “Twelfth Night,” productions, it’s all working like a charm.

“There are moments I am sitting in rehearsal and laughing, it’s just stunning,” said Brown. “There were those first moments in rehearsal where I thought, ‘Wow, this production can work.’

“It’s such an exciting group of actors and the diversity is wonderful. All of that put together has been very exciting. It’s funny, fast and more different than probably anything we’ve done, so we’re happy all the way around.”

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Arabian Shakespeare Festival presents “Twelfth Night, or What You Will”
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Audrey Rumsby
Through Nov. 18th
Royce Gallery
2901 Mariposa Street, San Francisco, CA 94110
Tickets range from $20 – $25
For tickets, call (408) 499-0017 or visit https://arabianshakespearefestival.org/

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