Unadilla Theatre’s 43rd season: Rural theater tackles ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘Iolanthe’ | Vermont Arts

Mistaken and concealed identities, pranks, revelry, mischievous fairies, pompous peers — mirth and music abound as Unadilla Theatre in Marshfield opens its 43rd season of community theater with Shakespeare in one playhouse and Gilbert and Sullivan in the other.

Shipwrecked Viola, upper crust Orsinio, sought after Olivia and the others of William Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night or What You Will” are on stage in Unadilla’s Festival Theatre. Just across the theaters’ two gardens, the ageless fairy “Iolanthe,” her half fairy son Strephon, excruciatingly aristocratic Lord Chancellor and more peers and fairies are in the original Unadilla Theatre in W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s comic opera “Iolanthe.” Both productions open Thursday, June 23 and run to July 2.

In a breathtaking bucolic setting — Scottish Highland cattle and sheep graze in gently rolling surrounding fields — Unadilla was founded in 1979 by Bill Blachly. This year, true to tradition, the original proscenium stage sheep barn theater opens with Gilbert and Sullivan. The versatile arena-style Festival Theatre, terrific for Shakespeare, was built a decade ago.

“Twelfth Night’ is one of the most popular of all Shakespeare’s plays and has some of the most beloved characters in the whole canon. It’s wonderful to get to do it,” said director Joanne Greenberg, noting that it is the most musical of the Bard’s works.

With its love triangle and entanglements, the spirited romantic comedy takes place in seaside Illyria — which Greenberg has set in 1950s Nantucket.

Surviving a shipwreck, Viola believes her beloved twin brother is lost at sea. Viola disguises herself as a young man, takes the name Cesario, and gets a position in the service of Duke Orsinio. Orsinio is smitten with Olivia, who, in mourning for her brother, will not consider marriage. Orsinio enlists Cesario to profess his love to Olivia. Olivia, in turn, falls for Cesario.

Olivia’s uncle Toby Belch, squires and servants have pranks and tomfoolery up their sleeves, especially for Olivia’s pompous steward Malvolio. And remember the missing twin?

“Thinking about doing it this time, more than ever before, I was struck with the issues of gender identity and sex role stereotypes,” said Greenberg who directed many Shakespeare productions during her tenure at U-32 High School and has been directing adults during the decade since her graduation.

“I didn’t want it buried in a distant past but I felt it needed to be located in a time and place where some of those stereotypes still held fast — to help explain why Viola would feel the need to go in disguise as a man. I chose the 1950s as a time period when some of that rigidity of gender identity was still in place,” Greenberg said.

Nantucket offered seaside and class status context.

“That time period and location seemed like a really appropriate time and place where people would brush up against limitations of all of those social codes. But even as they are brushing up against them, a wonderful thing about this play is that those are simultaneously still very entrenched but also quietly being subverted and questioned.

“Shakespeare loved setting up opposition. That dynamic is just so much fun to explore,” said Greenberg.

The cast is, “talented, experienced and Shakespeare savvy,” said Greenberg, noting that this is an, “accessible, understandable, and extremely entertaining production. You don’t need to have grown up going to Shakespeare to really enjoy it.”

“Iolanthe; or, The Peer and the Peri,” the seventh of Gilbert and Sullivan’s collaborations, opened in London in 1882. It brings together the realm of fairies and the mortal world of British peers — satirizing law, dysfunctional government and aristocratic society along the way.

“It’s a tremendous musical piece, and it’s got a different flow than the other Gilbert and Sullivans. It doesn’t have the usual plot and it makes fun of all these political things that are still relevant today,” said director Erik Kroncke.

Fairy Iolanthe, having married a mortal, was banished from the fairy world. In the mortal one, she had a son, Strephon, now a shepherd. After 25 years, Iolanthe is allowed back into the fairy fold, the mortal spouse no longer around.

Strephon reveals to his fairy kin his love for mortal Phyllis, a ward of the Lord Chancellor. The Lord Chancellor, and plenty of other peers, are also keen on lovely Phyllis. Phyllis loves Strephon — but there is the problem of his lowly status. The Queen of the Fairies casts a clever spell to elevate him.

Confusion ensues, along with misunderstandings of relationships, surprise identities, and much satire of the absurdity of laws human and fairy — all to Sullivan’s lively score.

The score, distinctively Sullivan, “also synthesizes many operatic references. Among others, you will also hear nods to George Frederic Handel (fugal and florid passages), Felix Mendelssohn (similar lightness of the fairy music of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ and of course, the inescapable references to the musical humor of Jacques Offenbach, whose comic operas were an inspiration for the entire Gilbert and Sullivan canon,” said music director Mary Jane Austin.

“Wagner’s operas were just coming on the scene in England and so there are several references to them, such as the Fairy Queen’s original costume, which was a copy of Brünnhilde’s garb, complete with the operatic horned helmet. Also, at one point the fairies sing “Willahallah! Willaloo!” not unlike the Rheinmaidens’ “Weia! Waga! Woge, du Welle, walle zur Wiege! Wagalaweia! Wallala weiala weia!” and there is an unmistakable Wagnerian influence on the Queen’s music,” said Austin.

jim.lowe / jim.lowe

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