The Acting Company has come to the Polonsky Shakespeare Center to present William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a show that I just recently saw and reviewed last December when the Fiasco Theatre brought the same festive play to Classic Stage Company‘s lovely sweet theatre in the East Village. The Public Works will also present a joyful musical adaptation this summer as part of their free Shakespeare in the Park. It’s one of Shakespeare most playful and endearing, but also one that requires a delicate hand in finding the correct comic pacing and the joyfulness within the sometimes mean-spirited revelry. Twelfth Night refers to the twelfth night after Christmas Day, called the Eve of the Feast of Epiphany. It was originally a Catholic holiday and like many other Christian feast days, it gave rise to an occasion for fun and mischief, with one of the themes being the inversion of the social order; a fairly direct cultural parallel to the play’s gender confusion-driven plot. When the Fiasco Theatre presented their telling of this tale, I wrote in my review that it is “enjoyable and fun, landing firmly in the esthetic of the festive ritual it honors“. And although The Acting Co. (TAC) with an assist by the Resident Ensemble Players (REP) finds its playfulness here and there within the text and the players, this is not the most fun revelry to be invited to, and just like in real life, they might want to consider banning fire arms, because when these gentlemen come packing heat, the party becomes darker, and odder, than it ever needs to be.
But this is Twelfth Night, and it seems NYC is in love with this tale. And as the story goes, a shipwreck, naturally as Shakespeare loves a good storm, causes a sister and brother to be washed ashore on the coast of Illyria, separate and unknowing of the other’s fate. Both believe their very similarly looking sibling has died in the tempest that brought down their ship, but each on their own seek salvation and safety in the same welcoming land. The time line doesn’t really add up, and it’s odd they never meet on the street, but we go along with the scenario, as it is Twelfth Night, and it’s Shakespeare. The young lady and sister, Viola, played by the spirited but physically awkward Susanna Stahlmann (TAC’s Macbeth) after crawling ashore, disguises herself as the young man, Cesario, and somehow manages to enter into the service and trusting heart of the influential Duke Orsino. The Duke, played by the dashing and well-voiced Matthew Greer (Broadway’s Seminar) seems a bit unstable, but welcomes the young man into his fold. He hopes that with Cesario’s sweet soft demeanor, the young man might help him in his unsuccessful bid to woo the beautiful and desirable Olivia, a woman deep in mourning for her recently deceased father and brother. Is this really true love, or just a man of privilege wanting what he wants but can’t have, regardless of anyone else’s thoughts or desires.
Drapped in black, giving us a rich silhouette of Madonna/Evita-style mourning courtesy of costume designer, Candice Donnelly (Broadway’s Fences), Olivia refuses pleasure and festivities of all shapes and sizes, especially the company of men, shoving away all advances for marriage, love, and even fun. Viola’s Cesario doesn’t have to work too hard to get past her servants, especially the pompous Malvolio, played with conviction by Stephen Pelinski (“Sweet Land“) and as in the case of many Shakespearian romantic comedies, Olivia, charmingly realized by the lively Elizabeth Heflin (REP’s Heartbreak House) falls for the feisty young Cesario. Why she throws away her pledge of mourning as fast as she changes her dress, claiming to be desperately in love with this young messenger is beyond me, as their interactions never really flutter into romantic territory, making it very difficult to figure out what this kind of love truly is. To make matters worse, or more fun depending on how you look at it, Viola has in turn, fallen for the handsome Duke, and in this one, it is slightly more believable. He’s quite the catch, and although a bit pompous and erratic, the scenes between these two are some of the most enjoyable and sexy moments in this stark comedy. Although entirely unbelievable in their ‘handsy’ interaction, these two are endearing and ridiculous, giving us hope for unadulterated and blind infatuation at first sight. Is that really what love look like, or just pure blind lust? All the while, Viola’s identical appearing brother, Sebastian, portrayed playfully and sensually by the handsome and frisky John Skelley (TAC’s Hamlet) wanders the coastal town taking in the sights with Antonio (Hassan El-Amin), a sea-captain who previously fought against Orsino, by his side. We all know how this love triangle/rectangle is going to play out eventually, and it does, with a charm and energy emulating from the cast, but that the production and the director doesn’t really deserve. Is this a projection of all the different shades of love? Or just the clumsiness of lust and ego revealed for all to see? But more importantly, does love really require a loaded gun?
Plainly directed with a good ear for music but not for symbiotic revelry by Maria Aitken (Broadway’s The 39 Steps), the production surprisingly doesn’t find its groove on that oddly orchestrated stage. The bland set brings to mind the plain dull architecture of condos in Florida rather than the exotic and romantic atmosphere of the ancient region of Illyria. Designed by Lee Savage (Theatreworks’ The Lightning Thief), the setting is made up of a few doors, a modernist balcony, a strange and detracting cut-out window to frame a far off bucolic coast line, and a wide and formidable set of stairs that run from one end of the stage to almost the other. It feels more like an obstacle rather than a strong device, and a far too concrete one. The lighting by designer Philip S. Rosenberg (Broadway’s It’s Only a Play) seems spotty and flat, leaving much of the festive quality outside in the Brooklyn air, with the only bit of joyful spirit coming from Donnelly’s costumes that thankfully seem to have been borrowed from a number of different productions, all from varying time periods, but all far more stylish than the one before us. I have to wonder though, where did those ridiculous policeman come wandering in from? A Monty Python film remake of the Holy Grail? Because they should not be taken seriously.
Musically this production embraces the lovely joy of the play’s reference, especially with Joshua David Robinson (59E59’s Sense of an Ending) and his playful enactment of the fool, Feste. He poses the question that we’ve been asking since the beginning, “What is Love?” but doesn’t get a good enough answer from anyone, especially the gaggle of revelries sitting before him; Olivia’s riotous uncle, Sir Toby Belch un-memorably played by Lee E. Ernst (REP’s Tartuffe), a silly squire named Sir Andrew Aguecheek, gleefully played by the hilariously over-the-top Michael Gotch (TFANA’s Svejk), and Olivia’s servants, Maria deliciously portrayed by the enchanting Kate Forbes, and Fabian, portrayed flatly by Mic Matarrese (Hay Fever). These four play a nasty but funny trick on the arrogant Malvolio, punishing him for his attempt to chastise the lot for being too jovial. Sir Toby famously exclaims, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”. Malvolio pays a price for his attempt to reestablish order within the house, and in this production, the trick gets uncomfortably mean-spirited and dark, as dark as that odd chamber he finds himself trapped in. The fun, it seems, is sorely missing throughout, and it and love are awkwardly resurrected for the final scene. It all comes together as clumsy as Viola’s foot work, stumbling around the stage until all is made right. Is Love a contagious breath blown forward? If that is true, it misses its mark in this mediocre telling of a Twelfth Night celebration, filling the flatness with missteps and sexual attraction, masked as true love and devotion.
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