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High and Dry and On the Sly :: Paula Plum on ASP and Lyric Stage's Co-Production of 'Twelfth Night'

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Mar 21, 2019

Paula Plum, a founding member of Actors' Shakespeare Project, has graced the Boston stage in productions from many of the area's theater companies, taking roles both on the boards and behind the scenes. For the upcoming ASP and Lyric Stage Company of Boston co-production of the Shakespeare comedy "Twelfth Night," Plum assumes directorial duties with confidence, having helmed productions in and around Boston wince 1985.

The play — written right at the dawn of the 17th century and named for the end of the Christmas holiday season — finds a pair of twins, Viola and Sebastian, separated from one another after a shipwreck on the shores of the kingdom of Illyria. Disguising herself as a young man and taking the name Cesario, Viola enters the employ of a nobleman named Duke Orsino. The Duke is heartsick with love for the lady Olivia, who refuses him and all other suitors because she is in mourning for her father and her brother, but Duke Orsino dispatches Viola to plead his case to Oliva. This being Shakespeare, you can guess what happens next... Olivia falls in love with "Cesario," leading to hilarious complications, especially when it turns out that Sebastian hasn't drowned after all and he makes his way to Illyria in the company of Antonio, an old enemy of Orsino's.

Meantime, things within the microcosm of Olivia's household are just as complicated, with her Uncle, Sir Toby, joining forces with another frustrated suitor, Andrew Aguecheek, as well as Olivia's servants Maria, Fabian, and Feste, to torment Olivia's steward, a starchy fellow named Malvolio — who, like just about every other man in Illyria, harbors a flame for Olivia. Making Malvolio into a huge fool in front of Olivia becomes the pet project of this household conspiracy, and the arrows of love and infatuation fly everywhere.

The cast is a lively meshing of veteran actors from both companies and some new faces, including Hayley Spivey as Viola, Samantha Richert as Olivia, Dominic Carter as Sebastian, Alejandro Simoes playing both Orsino and Andrew Aguecheek, Bobbie Steinbach playing Sir Toby Belch, Michael Forden Walker as Antonio and Fabian, Rachel Belleman as Feste, and — wait for it — Paula Plum's husband Richard Snee as Malvolio. (Yes!!)

EDGE caught up with Paula Plum to find out more about the co-production, which brings two of Boston's best-beloved midsized companies together for the first time.

EDGE: You've done lots of directing for the Boston stage...

Paula Plum: I mean, relative to other directors, not as much, My focus has always been acting, But I love to direct because it gives me an opportunity to influence the entire production, and that's really thrilling.

EDGE: Are there still projects you take on that make you feel like a novice or give you that rush of figuring things out for the first time? Or is that true of every directing assignment?

Paula Plum: The thing about Shakespeare is that he is so malleable, it's always like you're directing it for the first time. Shakespeare's in the public domain, and so we can shape and bend him as we will, and I've shaped this one into a comedy set in the 1920s in New Orleans. It always feels with Shakespeare that I'm starting with a brand-new playwright -ironically, since he's been around for 400 years.

EDGE: It's true — and the poster art suggests there's kind of a Bob Fosse thing going on with this production. Could you say a bit about that?

Paula Plum: I think that was the artist rendering that does that. We don't have that feel in the show. New Orleans is the center where jazz was born, and the height of the Jazz Age was in the '20s, but Fosse is much later, and we were really trying to stay authentic to the '20s as an era.

EDGE: What brought you to the Lyric Stage for this production of "Twelfth Night?"

Paula Plum: Chris [Christopher V. Edwards, Artistic Director of Actors' Shakespeare Project] and [Lyric Stage Company of Boston Producing Artistic Director] Spiro [Veloudos] were chatting about co-producing. Spiro has always maintained that the future of Boston theater lies in all of us working together because our audiences are the same. I mean, we try to develop our audiences, but at the same time, many of Boston's theatergoers are going to all the theaters. So, Chris and Spiro decided to do a co-production of Shakespeare. Spiro has a long history of Shakespeare, and it's sort of a natural choice for him, but the Lyric isn't known for Shakespeare.

It was a good opportunity for us to work with the Lyric, also, because we're a site-specific theater, but we are moving, I think, as a company closer towards performing in theaters.

EDGE: As opposed to churches and other spaces all around town.

Paula Plum: Yeah, but I think we'll probably still do one of those each year. But we can't do five. It's just so exhausting to try to re-create an entire environment, including box office and dressing rooms and everything, every time we do a play. It's so lovely to walk into a theater and have everything in place.

EDGE: You're working with a number of Actor's Shakespeare Project regulars, including Jennie Israel, Michael Forden Walker, and the always-wonderful Bobbie Steinbach. Do you have a sort of mutual vocabulary or shorthand you've evolved from working together for so long?

Paula Plum: That is one of the great things, actually, about Boston theater — many of us see each other over and over again in the various theaters in Boston, and I think there's almost a sense of repertory, especially since we've been working together in the same company for 15 years now. We know each other so well, and we know each other's tricks and habits. We understand each other, and there's a shorthand that obviously developed, and also there are many shortcuts that you can take that you couldn't really do in the company of people who are just starting from square one.

EDGE: You're also working with notable actors with a long history at the Lyric like Samantha Richert and Alejandro Simoes — though they have also had some experience with ASP. I recall when you directed "Romeo & Juliet" for Happy Medium it was billed as "building a bridge" between Boston's large and small theater communities — does this production similarly feel like bridge-building between the two companies?

Paula Plum: Yeah, it is a first for us as a mid-sized theater. Lyric is one of the larger mid-sized theaters, and so it's an opportunity for us to share resources and practices, which is great because we learn from each other. Lyric also has a really super production manager - her name is Stephanie Hettrick. They have a system, and we have been able to plug into their system, and it's working like a well-greased machine.

We have incredibly talented actors who are really steeped in Shakespeare. We also have brilliant clowns! Richard Snee is in this.

EDGE: It's always wonderful when you and your husband Richard Snee work together. You won't both be on stage in this case, but he's playing Malvolio, which is a terrific role. It must be great fun for you!

Paula Plum: Yes, it's always fun. First of all, Richard in any rehearsal room is always like a cool breeze. He's easy, he's fun, he just brings all his humor into the dynamic of a group. But he also — you wouldn't know it to look at him, but he'd the most outrageous clown I have ever met!


EDGE: I think I believe that.

Paula Plum: I let him go because it may not be there at the beginning of rehearsal, as he gets more and more comfortable with the cast, if I allow the freedom that a director should allow an actor, he just keeps finding more and more outrageously funny choices. It's kind of like, the less I direct and more I let him go, the better off we are. That's sort of true in life, too!


EDGE: "Twelfth Night" is one of those Shakespearean chestnuts that are always welcome — it's so funny and charming, and it also features a smart, wily woman taking on the mostly male-driven powers that be. It feels like we need that right now.

Paula Plum: It's a good play for that reason, and also because the story of Viola is the story of an immigrant if you will, or a refugee washed ashore. She finds herself in a strange land, and the question at the heart of Viola's journey is, "Do I belong here?" In order to find her way and to survive, she has to cover herself up and become something that she isn't; and in order to be loved, she has to reveal who she is, but she's asking, "Can I be who I am, and still be loved?" That question is answered only at the end of the play.

EDGE We won't spoil it for Shakespeare neophytes!

Paula Plum: Yes.


Paula Plum: "Twelfth Night" is one of Shakespeare's most popular plays because it has everything. The character of Malvolio is known as the big clown turn, but at the heart of Malvolio, there's a deep sadness. And they treat him quite brutally in this play — Shakespeare treats him quite brutally. It's a play that has multiple dimensions, and it isn't "just a comedy." There's an underbelly of sadness. It's bittersweet. It's a story of unrequited love.

EDGE: And sometimes requited.

Paula Plum: But the women all wind up with the wrong person! And that's the interesting thing about the play. Oliva fell in love with Viola, and with who Viola is; she's eloquent, intelligent, articulate, poetic. And then Shakespeare turns it on its head; Olivia recognized Viola in Sebastian, but it's not the person she fell in love with. And Viola is in love with Orsino who, as drawn by Shakespeare, is a narcissist. We're not so happy that she winds up with Orsino, because, really, the truly rich relationship is with Olivia! And then Maria, who's the third woman in the play, has a long-term relationship with Sir Toby, who is actually a drunkard. Sir Toby marries Maria at the end of the play, we're told by Fabian at the last minute, as a reward for gulling Malvolio. So, the women are actually are not with the people they were meant to be with. How the play ends is giving us a little bit of truth mixed in with this comedy. The darkness is there.

EDGE: So... we are going to spoil it for Shakespeare neophytes! But let's get back to a happier pairing: You and Richard are going to appear on stage together later this season, in "Barefoot in the Park" at Gloucester Stage. Can you say a little about that?

Paula Plum: I know the play, and I honestly can't talk very much about it because I haven't had a minute to think. This project ["Twelfth Night"] is huge! I'm aware that I'm playing two roles [in "Barefoot in the Park"]. I have a long history with Gloucester Stage and I've been working there since 1989, directing and acting, and I'm always thrilled to go back there. It's another home.

"Twelfth Night" runs March 29 — April 28. Post-performance talk-backs will take place every Sunday matinee: March 31, April 7, 14, 21, and 28. For tickets and more information please go to https://www.lyricstage.com or to actorsshakespeareproject.org

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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