ASPEN - The Hudson Reed Ensemble's latest production opens with a full-scale tap-dance number, with canes, tap platform and all. Soon after, actor Brad Moore bursts into a bit lifted from Curly Howard, of the Three Stooges. The musical backdrop is lifted from the 1920s: The tap-dance scene plays out to Irving Berlin's 1929 hit "Puttin' on the Ritz," and later there will be a pair of Cole Porter tunes: "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love" and the show-closing "Anything Goes." The physical backdrop is Red Mountain.
Yes, this is Shakespeare - or, more specifically, the Hudson Reed Ensemble's Shakespeare in the Park, which brings a Shakespeare play to Galena Plaza, between the Pitkin County Library and the Pitkin County Jail, late each summer. And this is the comic side of Shakespeare - no blood, no revenge, no murderous tragic heroes. This year, Kent Reed, founder and director of the troupe, chose "Twelfth Night," a comedy Shakespeare wrote for the close of the Christmas season. As in past productions, Reed has given Shakespeare a new setting; this "Twelfth Night" takes place in the Roaring '20s, in the Hamptons.
"Twelfth Night" opens today and shows Saturday and Sunday this weekend, with additional performances through Sept. 1. All performances are at 5:30 p.m., and admission is free.
"He was like the Beethoven of theater," Reed, who directs the current production, said of Shakespeare. "He had such a wide breadth, understanding all of human behavior, dramatic or comedic."
Shakespeare was similarly broad-minded in his approach to comedy.
"It was everything: It was satirical, slapstick, insightful. It was witty and clever, and at the same time it could be slapstick."
As multifaceted as his comedy might have been, Shakespeare habitually returned to one particular device for his humor: the mistaken identity. His first humorous play, "A Comedy of Errors," was built around mistaken identities, and he returned to the idea for "Twelfth Night." Viola (played in the current production by Courtney Thompson) masquerades as Cesario; convincingly portraying a young man, she becomes the object of desire of Lady Olivia (Lisette Shiffer). Viola falls for her employer, Duke Orsino (Franz Alderfer), who also believes her to be a man. There is further trickery: Malvolio (Mike Monroney), Olivia's steward, is fooled into believing that Olivia wants to marry him.
Reed thinks the repeated use of mistaken identity is connected to the fact that, in Shakespeare's time, women were not permitted onstage, so women's roles were played by young men. It was a short leap from boys acting as girls to characters having their identities mistaken.
But Reed also says that, at least in "Twelfth Night," the bulk of the comedy comes from the characters themselves, who get much latitude to play up the humor. Sir Toby Belch (Gerald Delisser), Reed says, is a "Falstaffian character, likes his drink, a little bigger than life." Andrew Aguecheek (Brad Moore), Belch's simpleton sidekick, "is kind of a bumbling suitor for Olivia. And he gets his advice from Belch, which is funny in itself. What he dispenses and how he dispenses it is funny."
Feste (Lee Sullivan) embodies another of Shakespeare's recurring comedic devices: the clown, in this case, Olivia's jester.
"But instead of being an out-and-out clown, we've cast him as a sort of social psychopath who enjoys being around the rich folk," Reed said. "He's amusing and clever. Shakespeare's clowns are usually more witty than the people around them - but they'd never want their daughters to marry them."
Of the female characters, Maria (Emily Nemec), who is Feste's love interest, is the most comedic. Reed likens her to Belch.
"She's in a way a female Falstaff, larger than life. She swings her weight around. And she's the instigator of one of the main plot devices, which is making an idiot out of Malvolio, who is the play's stuffed shirt."
Reed marvels at the fact that the characters, even going over the top to get laughs, remain three-dimensional. Such is the enduring magic of Shakespeare.
"His characters were full-blooded, with all the sinew and tissue of a person," Reed said. "They were people you could identify with. They weren't a sitcom type of character."