Propeller’s debut performances for the University Musical Society were among the highlights of the local theater season last year. I saw their Comedy of Errors and don’t recall ever laughing as hard or as frequently during a Shakespeare production, or for that matter at almost any other theatrical comedy. This year they are back with two comedies, The Taming of the Shrew, one of the Bard’s earliest efforts, and Twelfth Night, which ranks among the finest comedies the master ever wrote. Propeller’s Artistic Director, Edward Hall, says, “As a company we love exploring the comedy. It’s comedy rooted in truth, and the characters are so well-rounded in Twelfth Night that it’s a delight to bring them to life. Particularly the drunks. Nobody has ever written drunken people better than Shakespeare in Twelfth Night. It’s very rewarding to explore writing like that, because the comedy is never reliant on funny “ha-ha.” It’s always rooted in truth. There’s a depth to the people. But at the same time, it does give us opportunities where sometimes it feels right to add our own comic decorations – and we do!”
Propeller’s most distinguishing spin on Shakespeare is to perform him unlike the way most modern companies do, and exactly as he was produced these offerings in his lifetime—that is, with an all-male cast. While unique and un-ignorable at first, I found myself barely noticing the device soon after the first scene of last year’s Comedy of Errors. Instead, the production revealed extra layers of meaning in the text, more double entendres, more jokes; meanings that Shakespeare—never one to miss an opportunity to wring every possible nuance out of every word or phrase—surely intended, and the audiences of his time certainly picked up on. There will be even more of those opportunities in Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night; two plays whose plots center on gender and love in multiple confusing, hilarious and thought provoking ways. “I think he’s saying that it’s not gender that’s the issue – it‘s love,” says Hall. “Love doesn’t really pay much attention to gender. We pay attention to gender, but it doesn’t make any difference to love. In fact, everybody has the capacity to love anybody.”
Another unique aspect of Propeller is their use of music and musicians—on stage, and even during intermission. Many of their actors also sing and play instruments and last year, to the delight of the audience, some of them came out to the Power Center lobby between acts and sang pop songs while accompanying themselves on guitars, ukuleles and various percussion instruments. As the opening lines of Twelfth Night say, “If music be the food of love, play on.” Hall adds, “We quite often express the emotional current of Twelfth Night through musical moments. It’s very hard to intellectualise or describe – it’s all about atmosphere and feeling, and music goes beyond intellect in that way. The bit of your brain that’s trying to interpret language is freed, and you can experience something different.”
Propeller will be at the Power Center February 20-24.
$18-$56. Twelfth Avenue: Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at 7:30pm; Saturday at 2pm. The Taming of the Shrew: Thursday and Saturday at 7:30pm; Sunday at 2pm. For more info, please visit UMS.org.