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Miami Spice

Saratoga Shakespeare Company contemporizes Twelfth Night with a Latin accent

by Ann Morrow on July 25, 2012

Are you who I think you are? David Gerard and Sarah Luz Cordoba in Twelfth Night


It’s unlikely that pink flamingos were part of the set design for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night during its Elizabethan run, but for this season’s production by Saratoga Shakespeare Company, flamingos, and panama hats and Salsa music, make perfect sense. Relocating the comedy from a coastal city on the Adriatic to today’s Miami is of a piece with the Bard’s limitless adaptability, as well as with SSC’s comedic emphasis: This is, after all, the company that in 2008 put on As Y’all Like It, a Shakespeare Western. For Twelfth Night’s South Beach setting, the Alfred Z. Solomon stage in Congress Park has been transformed into a seaside resort. It’s Shakespeare in the Park, poolside division.

“It has a very Latin feel,” says director William Finlay of the adaptation. “The leads have very heavy Spanish accents. I had recently done some work in Miami [as a fight choreographer with a prominent Hispanic theater] and I hired who I thought were the best actors in Miami.”

Sarah Luz Cordoba plays Olivia, a grieving countess entangled in a comic love triangle. Cuban-born Jorge Hernandez, a singer and Spanish-language TV regular, makes his English-language stage debut as Feste, Olivia’s singing jester. Finlay transposed Feste’s songs with Spanish songs sung in Spanish.

“It’s a very different Shakespeare clown—he’s worldly, not a fool per say,” says the director, adding of his casting, “I took a big risk and I got a big reward.”

Local theater pros John Romeo, as the drunkard Sir Toby Belch, and Patricia Culbert, as Maria, a witty lady-in-waiting, are joined by off-Broadway actor Anthony Peeples as the buffoonish Sir Andrew Augecheek to form another triangle in the play’s mirthful mix-up of mistaken identities. This gender-bending tale of cross-purposes is especially relevant for modern audiences, and as with all of SSC’s productions, it has been trimmed only for time constraints: Performed outdoors in natural light, the company’s presentations are also reworked for a family-friendly format.

“We pride ourselves that we are very accessible to families and we encourage people to bring their children,” says Finlay. “My own children are involved; my son has been in eight seasons. We don’t dumb the language down, we make it visually understandable.”

That the company is renowned for stagings that appeal to kids of all ages he credits to the actors—“they tell a story very well”—and to the company’s rollicking choreography. “It’s very physical,” he says. “That’s my style as a director, quite rapid, quite vigorous. The actors move a lot.”

Finlay has a background in dance and circus, including wire walking, which he taught at Boston University before his move to Union College, where he is the associate professor of theater. He’s also a nationally recognized specialist in combat choreography for the stage—and yes, Twelfth Night has a duel, though most amusingly, it’s not with swords.

“My actors sweat a lot,” Finlay cheerfully admits, relating that on opening night last Tuesday, the temperature at Congress Park was 101 degrees. Fortunately for the cast, the costuming is as contemporary as the setting, with bathing suits and cabana wear.

Surely you jest: Jorge Hernandez as Feste and Patricia Culbert as Maria

That’s quite a contrast with the company’s debut presentation of Twelfth Night 12 years ago. Directed by Finlay, a Saratoga Shakespeare co-founder (he is now the sole artistic director), the production was almost period authentic in its costuming.

“I wanted to do something different this time,” he explains. “I felt different about the play. It’s 12 years later. I’m a different person.”

SSC was founded to provide professional summer theater for all ages. “We use only professional actors,” he says. “I cast my actors out of New York and Los Angeles and Chicago. And with local performers who are very, very good.” One of those local performers is his wife, Patricia Culbert, who also heads the company’s intern program.

“It’s like Williamstown in a way,” says Finlay. “The interns do the grunt work, the sets, breaking it down every night. They earn points toward their Equity card, and they can be cast in small roles.”

Attendance for the Congress Park performances, where patrons can picnic and enjoy the beautiful grounds, went up last year with the company’s The Merchant of Venice. Finlay says the jump in numbers can be explained with two words: “Al Pacino.” The director is referring to the film star’s outdoor performances of the same play, which popularized Shakespeare in the Park for a wider audience.

Another mandate of Saratoga Shakespeare is to present the performances for free. The nonprofit is sponsored by Saratoga Arts and supported by the city of Saratoga Springs. This year, the company also received a $5,000 gift from the Philly and Charlie Dake Foundation, a welcome boost in these recessionary times. “Without it, we wouldn’t be having a season,” says Finlay.

He also describes another kind of boost: the attendance of racetrack backstretch workers, most of them Mexican, who were invited to speak with the Latin actors about the play before the performance. Proving that good theater knows no language boundaries, Finlay says, “I’m sure their English was minimal, but you could tell they were really enjoying it.”

Twelfth Night at Congress Park in Saratoga Springs continues Thursday (July 26), Friday (July 27) and Saturday (July 28) at 6 PM; and Sunday (July 29) at 3 PM. Rain cancels the performance. For more info, call 209-5514.