Orson Welles was the first director to use what is called today a "concept" with a Shakespearean play. He placed his late 1930s WPA production in Haiti and called it "The Voodoo Macbeth." It fit beautifully.
Since then, many directors have pasted on concepts that neither amplify nor clarify the Shakespearean text, and the fit is often uncomfortable.
Once in a while, however, a director's concept will serve the Bard's work in such a way that the text is not only made more accessible to its audience, but adds a further note of entertainment to the narrative.
In recent years, Southland productions of a Dr. Seuss "Midsummer Night's Dream" and a "Star Wars" version of "A Comedy of Errors" have entranced audiences. Shakespeare Orange County's second offering of its summer season Thursday at the Waltmar Theatre in Orange shows every sign of being as intriguing.
In the Bard's "Twelfth Night," subtitled "Or, What You Will," the heroine Viola survives a shipwreck and washes ashore in a strange land called Illyria, "a kind of crazy place," according to director Carl Reggiardo. A few months ago, when he began thinking about his production of "Twelfth Night," he started with an idea that had piqued his fancy for several years. Viola's impressions of Illyria must have been very much like Alice's reactions when she dropped down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.
"Those two characters kind of melded in my mind," Reggiardo said. "I thought I'd take it a step further and go back to Lewis Carroll's books, 'Wonderland' and 'Through the Looking Glass,' and see if I could really draw a line between the characters and situations in those books and times, and 'Twelfth Night.' "
He found more than he had bargained for. In a close examination, he realized that both authors not only loved language, but loved playing with language.
"I found," he explains, "that with the White Rabbit, with the Mad Hatter, with the March Hare, the way they spoke, the things they said, were very close to a lot of the dialogue in 'Twelfth Night.' Not the same ideas, but the style of speaking, in puns, in non sequiturs, curiously worded, very hard to define. The characters in the play do that a lot. The play's famous for all that unusual dialogue from Feste or Toby Belch. It works right in with the contrariness of how the 'Wonderland' characters speak and why Alice gets upset with them sometimes."
The actors have also noted how close Carroll's dialogue is, even in content, to Shakespeare's in places. This affinity convinced Reggiardo that the idea would work.
When Reggiardo started rehearsing, he told the cast that the play's subtitle, "What You Will," might be better than the actual title. "Twelfth Night," the last day of Christmas, was a season in Elizabethan times of celebrants changing costumes and pretending to be someone else for the festivities. To Reggiardo, that fits just fine with similar carryings-on in the play.
"It certainly fits in with what we're doing with Alice," he said.
The text of the play and Shakespeare's language is foremost in any production of his plays, and Reggiardo firmly believes in a director's respect for the work. The production will be according to Hoyle, and to the playwright. The effect comes from the visual. The architecture will be Renaissance, as will the costumes.
Wait a minute. It might be better to say the costumes are Renaissance-plus, to bridge the connection between Alice's world and Viola's. The dissolute Toby Belch will be more egg-shaped than potbellied. He's Humpty-Dumpty. Malvolio wears a wig that simulates ears as an iambic and scurrying White Rabbit. Two servants echo Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee, dressed the same, behaving the same, moving the same.
Costume designer Cathy Crane-McCoy, whose job it is to keep the clothes in period and yet to mirror the famous John Tenniel illustrations, says it has been a challenge.
"I've been taking the Tenniel look and sort of reconfiguring it into a Renaissance look."
She has added a brim to a tall 16th-Century hat for jester Feste as the Mad Hatter and padded an actor for "a more oval feel" rather than just "putting an egg on stage" for Belch's Humpty. None of it could be any more outlandish than the exaggerated costumes Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch gave his contemporary subjects.
Crane-McCoy adds, "More subliminal statements work the best.
"It's something I didn't want to hit people over the head with. I like things that creep up on you."
For Reggiardo, when directing Shakespeare, finding a concept isn't his first choice, unless it has a purpose.
"It does seem to fit this particular play," he says. "It might make the play more accessible to the audience. A little bit of fun is added, and as they recognize these 'Alice' references, they can use those to give them entree into the characters and situations of 'Twelfth Night.' And it will help younger audience's follow Viola's predicament more easily and more closely."
* "Twelfth Night, or, What You Will," Shakespeare Orange County, Waltmar Theatre, Chapman University, 301 E. Palm, Orange. Thursday through Sunday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 3 p.m. Ends Aug. 6. $16-$23. (714) 744-7016.