It’s been six years since Hoboken’s Mile Square Theatre has performed outdoors in Frank Sinatra Park. Its most recent riverfront performance, in 2007, was Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” so it was natural that the company would come back with another of the master playwright’s comedies. “Twelfth Night,” first performed in 1602, is typically counted as one of Shakespeare’s bawdiest and most mischievous works.
“Everything we’ve done at the waterfront has been a highly stylized, classical show,” said the company’s artistic director and “Twelfth Night’s” director, Chris O’Connor. “This show is particularly festive.”
“Twelfth Night” opened last Friday and will run through next Sunday, July 14. Admission is free, a particular treat given Mile Square’s reputation for putting on quality productions. The show, one of Shakespeare’s most well-read comedies, tells the story of the shipwrecked Viola, a noblewoman who goes on to pose as a man, Cesario, in the household of the melancholy nobleman Orsino, who is in love with his neighbor, Olivia.
“This show is particularly festive.” - Director Chris O’Connor
“It’s about love, but specifically it’s about that sort of crazy love and not being able to requite it,” he said. “I think that’s something that everyone can recognize, even if they haven’t experienced it themselves.”
The show isn’t sappy though; it’s chockfull of bawdy humor, drunken mishaps, gender confusions, and plenty of gastronomy jokes. The talented cast is made up of professional actors, recent theater-school graduates, and a few Hoboken locals.
When he decided on “Twelfth Night,” O’Connor said he already had some cast members in mind.
“There are a lot of roles in this show that are perfect for some of our regular company members. But we also had some surprises when we were casting.”
Lacy J. Dunn, who has appeared in Mile Square Theatre’s annual “7th Inning Stretch,” plays Olivia, opposite John P. Keller (Orsino) and Caitlin Rigney (Viola/Cesario). All three actors received drama degrees from Rutgers University, where O’Connor used to teach and usually scouts for young talent. And speaking of young talent, the cast includes a few young Hobokenites, including Ariel Cruz, who recently appeared in Hoboken High School’s production of “Rent.”
A handful of Mile Square Theatre regulars are also in the production, including O’Connor’s frequent collaborators Matt Lawler and Charlie Kevin, who play, respectively, the show’s antagonist Malvolio and resident drunken party animal, Sir Toby Belch.
“Belch is sort of just there to have a good time,” said Kevin. “He’s just staying up and drinking a lot, not really worrying about anyone’s problems.”
The freeloading cousin of Olivia, Belch is a constant target of Malvolio, the puritanical head of Olivia’s household, who criticizes Belch’s drinking. In a hilarious but, in the end, tragic side plot, Belch enlists the help of others to convince Malvolio that Olivia is in love with him, causing Malvolio to abandon his religion and subsequently slide into insanity.
“He’s a generally disliked guy, but you tend to naturally side with your character, so I tried to figure out what’s made him the way that he is to the point where people decide to do this to him,” said Lawler.
Peter Daniel Straus, a professionally trained clown, rounds out the cast as the court jester Feste, who consistently reveals himself to be the smartest person in the room.
“I think he knows a bit more about what’s going on than he lets on,” said Straus, who incorporates plenty of his circus skills in his performance.
“Twelfth Night’s” traditional setting is a coastal Italian city called Illyria, which makes the Hoboken waterfront a perfect modern setting. This version of the play is set in 19th century Hoboken, which was to New York City what the Hamptons are today.
“We’re trying to recreate the Hoboken that people would come to from all around to enjoy the town back when it was a resort,” said O’Connor. “Hoboken is a central element of the show.”
He noted that the stage design is inspired by the archway built by the city in 2008 outside Sybil’s Cave, a local landmark on Sinatra Drive.
Lawler said that staging the show on the Hoboken waterfront reflects Mile Square Theatre’s greater mission, which is to provide high-quality theatre to Hoboken residents on their side of the Hudson River.
“The location is such a huge element of this particular story,” he said. “But it really ties into to what the theater is trying to do as a cultural institution. To juxtapose it against the skyline is important, because it shows that against the big city, we’re becoming something special over here.”