Outdoor production of a 1791 O'Keeffe homage to Shakespearean plotting focuses on the traveling performer Jack Rover. A young and exuberant cast led by a strong central performance and enhanced by onstage classical musicians. Fresh and funny Shakespeare Lite.
Directed by Calvin MacLean. Costumes by Dan Wilhelm. Lights by Laura Mantueffel. Set by Ron Keller. Sound by Colleen Kelly. Original music by Sally Hoffmann.
Michael McCalister (George Thunder), Thomas Anthony Quinn (Dory), Frank Nall (Ephraim Smooth), Rebecca MacLean (Lady Amaranth), Jay Whittaker (Harry Thunder), John Tovar (Muz), Philip Earl Johnson (Rover), Stephen Rose (Gammon).
Calvin MacLean, artistic director of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, directs this season's Wild Oats, written in 1791 by John O'Keeffe. O'Keeffe's text is an homage to Shakespeare in general and Twelfth Night in particular, cleverly plotted with a conceit that the protagonist, Jack Rover, a "strolling" actor of unknown parentage, relies wittingly - and at times unwittingly - upon snatches of Shakespearean quotations in social situations. Although complex of plot, Wild Oats is far from a problem play - Twelfth Night's Puritan threat is replaced here by benign Quaker influence - and the play's themes and conflicts are clearly drawn and cleanly resolved.
MacLean's production, elegantly designed with Three Musketeers-like rogues, features colorfully ruffian sailors, a literally black-and-white Quaker community, and especially, an on-stage collection of musicians who accent the rapidly paced story with a woodwinds-and-strings original score. Ewing Manor's outdoor theater is adorned with mural-like paintings of trees and bushes as well as images of an unhitched wagon and country cottages, all in filmy pastels. Wooden planks frame the stage like an oversized painting, and bottle-shaped lighting lines the stage perimeter. The wooden staircases that flank the stage are colored in mottled brown and green, and candles hang along the walls. Two square tan columns support the gallery, where the six-person orchestra resides. The orchestra, formally attired in green and gold with powdered white wigs, sit upon benches and overlook the action throughout the performance. Set changes - mostly armchairs, small tables, and simple props - are affected by young maids and butlers who flirt with each other playfully despite their austere black and white Quaker attire.
Thomas Anthony Quinn sets a tongue-in-cheek tone for the production with his initial appearance, the first in a succession of quirky characters. Red-faced and pony-tailed, Quinn plays the hardened sailor John Dory in a red-and-white striped shirt. Peg-legged and constantly squinting one eye while bugging the other, Quinn's battered and somewhat demented Dory has apparently been reduced to one good eye and one good leg. He hops about the stage, sometimes gesturing with the wooden stump or brandishing it like a weapon. Quinn's colorful Dory spits water, reacts with nearly constant bug-eyed perplexity, and spouts lines like, "Let's haul anchor!" and at the Wheat Stack tavern: "Bring Mr. Brandy and Miss Water, and we'll couple 'em." As Quinn revealed in one of the Festival's post-performance discussions, he had to have one calf and foot bound tightly to the back of his upper leg to achieve his peg-legged appearance, and when offstage he would unbind himself to relieve his discomfort, only to be quickly bound again to return to the stage. In addition, his Dory originally wore a black eye-patch, but in rehearsals the cast found his one-eyed squinting more comically effective.
Wild Oats features other keenly detailed minor characters, such as Lamp and Trap, the scheming theatrical-troupe administrators, the bumbling bailiff Twitch, along with the inhospitable host, Farmer Gammon, and his "honest reptile" son, Sim. These characters for the most part serve to illustrate the blustery hubris of Sir George Thunder, and especially, the gallantry and generosity of Jack Rover. Textually, Rover is given equal weight as his similarly youthful and roguish compatriots, Harry and Muz, but in this production, MacLean wisely chooses to focus upon Philip Earl Johnson's multi-faceted Rover. Johnson is a dashing and quick-witted performer, much like his character, and his Rover possesses aristocratic blood, but this is unknown to him, much like the reared-in-the-wild sons of Shakespeare's Cymbeline. Rover, again like Cymbeline's royal sons, reveals his nobility through his words and actions.
Johnson's well-mannered Rover lives in perpetual identity crisis - "Never knew a father's protection; never had a son to protect" - the play's primary theme. Even when he assumes the role of Thunder's heir, he comically but pointedly fails to cling to the notion of having family. After a pause, he realizes, "Oh, that's me," and he wonders in an aside, "What the devil is my father's name." Johnson, a Festival veteran, commands the stage with dignified stature and impeccable timing, as when he blandly replies to a bawdy reference, "The very thought brings blood to my...face." Johnson's Rover exhibits common sense in nonsensical circumstances, a wisdom apparently obtained from the experience of his travels: "When I could no longer fight like a mastiff, I ran like a greyhound."
Harry and Muz, along with Rover a trio of "strollers," or travelling expert thespians, behave like and resemble Dumas' Three Musketeers, especially in their waggish, floppy hats with feathers, belted coats and flapped knee-high boots. The honor of these rascals is especially apparent within the dowdy and colorless Quaker community in which they find themselves. Much like Olivia's household of reveling relatives in Twelfth Night, but with considerably more gallantry, the trio face their supposedly moral superior in Ephraim Smooth, played by Frank Nall as an inflexible and stifling hypocrite. Nall's Ephraim is a Quaker steward within the home of Lady Amaranth, much like Malvolio's Puritan presence in Shakespeare's play, and the comparison is furthered by Nall's recent star-turn as Malvolio in the Festival's 1996 Twelfth Night.
Nall plays the lean and austere Ephraim with a made-up face that is half red and scarred, and he wears a stiff white collar, a black tunic, and sports an impeccably powdered and curled white wig. Nall reveals the steward's true nature in his response to the prospect of Rover and Lady Amaranth performing As You Like It in the family barn: he callowly covers his ears so as not to hear the details, gives the stroller a spluttering raspberry, then throws a volume of Shakespeare to the ground and stomps on it. At one juncture, Nall nearly breaks into uncharacteristic laughter, and he turns from the audience to compose himself. Ephraim's hypocrisy and lascivious tendencies are later revealed when Nall surprisingly appears from a hiding place to swing wildly with one arm from a column to make a lusty grab for the wench Delilah. He misses her and merely sways one-armed from the column in rapt lust, then grabs her and lifts her high into the air.
Ephraim's usually urbane appearance and carefully measured tones are counter-pointed by the unshaven and unkempt, blustery and obese "substantial farmer" Gammon, whose wig is grayed and cockeyed. When Gammon refuses Rover shelter from a torrential rainstorm, Johnson refers to the rustic hypocrite as "Mister Hospitality," and his own gallantry is decidedly opposite: as Rover says, "one good act is an illustrious pedigree." In another role of note, the obstreperous Sir George Thunder is indeed a "man of noise." The only elder major character in O'Keeffe's text, Sir George wears a heavy beard and relies upon a cane, but his energetic bellows of, "I am the bold Thunder!" resound, and are always followed with a rolling rattle of timpani. Even Rover, when announcing his assumed name, is given the sonic drum roll, and the timpani becomes a running joke with the cast throughout the performance, as they turn to await the drums with expectation after each "thunderous" proclamation.
After intermission, the silliness gets even sillier, and the second act opens with a spirited Wheat Stack drinking song extolling a bowl of liquor. Three of Thunder's hired sailors appear in bandanas and eye-patches to confuse the already convoluted situation of impersonations and mistaken identities. When Thunder carries Dory offstage upon his back, the ever-confused Rover rushes onstage and demands at musket-point of an audience member which direction they headed. Rover races off but quickly returns to menace the ill-advising audience member with a growl and a glare. All the antics seem familiar and comfortably Shakespearean - a newborn lost at sea returned to his surprise birth-mother, unexpected paternity, even forbidden love and a little moral hypocrisy - all liberally punctuated with Rover's Bardic quotations. O'Keeffe's text, however, comes across as Shakespeare Lite, a pleasant confection that leaves MacLean only occasional depths to plumb. Deciding to accentuate the abundant situational humor, MacLean and his designers and cast, to their credit, manage to present a fresh and interesting Wild Oats with elegance and exuberance.
Note: A version of this article was edited and published in Shakespeare Bulletin, Vol.17, No.4, Fall 1999.