Friday, July 23, was a special day for me. I met William Shakespeare. The Rustic Mechanicals, West Virginia’s only professional touring Shakespeare troupe, performed the “Twelfth Night” under the canopy of the giant shelter at Valley Park in Hurricane.
I first met the Bard of Avon more than sixty years ago in my English literature classes at Freeport High School (Maine). During my four years of high school, I experienced five Shakespearian plays. The Twelfth Night was not among them.
High school Shakespeare was an experience which I both hated and enjoyed. Each student was required to memorize a famous speech and make a dramatic recitation. I enjoyed practicing my Elizabethan English presentations but was terrified to stand and deliver them before the class.
I came to Valley Park expecting to see a performance set in the 17th century portrayed by characters clad in period garb. What I found was far different. When performed at the Globe Theater in London in 1601, the Twelfth Night utilized 15 actors who would have been costumed in the most appropriate attire available on a limited budget.
The performance at Valley Park entailed 8 actors, clad in beachy apparel that might have been obtained at a citywide yard sale, portraying the 15 Shakespearian characters. The Rustic Mechanicals usually rely upon 9 actors and a change of clothes to do what Shakespeare did with 15. The absence of the character portraying Sir Andrew was cause for him to be replaced by a hat. At times, different actors assumed the role of Sir Andrew by donning the hat. On one occasion, one character engaged Sir Andrew in conversation by holding the hat and then donning the hat to reply.
The portrayal of Sir Andrew was most comical and most fitting as the Twelfth Night is a comedy. The comedy involves the interaction of characters mired in a love triangle.
In the original production, known to the audience but not to the characters, one member of the love triangle was a young man who portrayed a woman disguised as a man. In the Rustic Mechanical production, an actress played the role of this male impersonator.
In introducing the performance, actor Stacy Young informed the audience that the Twelfth Night featured a lot of songs, ranking second most in Shakespearian plays. Young said that Shakespeare would have used the songs of his era that were well known to those in attendance. He said the Rustic Mechanicals would use songs which were known to attendees at Valley Park and invited all to sing along.
At one point in the performance, the cast broke out with John Denver’s “Country Roads” with one cast member shouting out, “Sing it for Baby Dog!”
One aspect in which the Rustic Mechanicals did not depart from the original 1601 production was in use of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan lines. The troupe interacted with the audience at the shelter much like the Twelfeth Night’s original cast would have at the Globe Theater.
Me thinks the Bard would delighteth much at Valley Park had he been present.
Putnam County Librarian Megan Tarbett agreed. “Shakespeare would absolutely have been delighted,” she said.
Tarbett was the party responsible for the troupe’s visit to Hurricane. Tarbett said that Putnam County Library hosted the Rustic Mechanicals in 2019 and had planned on bringing them back in 2020 but was vetoed by Covid. The entire performance of the troupe was cancelled last year.
Friday’s performance of the Twelfth Night was the 11th in a 16 stop tour throughout the state.
“The Rustic Mechanicals do a different play each year. They can do it all, comedy or drama. They are very good,” Tarbett said. “They do Shakespeare for those who do not like Shakespeare.”
Tarbett plans on bringing the troupe back to Putnam County in 2022.