The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Free-For-All Twelfth Night is Shakespeare as seen through rose-petal colored glasses, as evanescent as a summer evening, goofy, cartoonish, foolish and sweet – in short, a comedy, designed to make us giggle and snort, and thereafter go home larkishly happy. It works, too.
The complicated, outlandish plot can be summarized in a paragraph: Viola (Christina Pumariega), tossed into the sea during a shipwreck, washes out on the beaches of Illyria. Separated from her beloved twin brother Sebastian (Randy Harrison), who she believes drowned, she resolves to disguise herself as a man and enter into the service of Duke Orsino (Gregory Woodall). The Duke is trying to court the Lady Olivia (Sarah Agnew) but it is heavy going: Olivia has pledged to observe a seven-year period of mourning for her dead brother, and will not accept amorous attentions from anyone during that time. This has not deterred her drunk uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Chuck Cooper), who has brought his ridiculous friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Tom Story) as a possible suitor. In fact, Olivia’s whole retinue, including her clever lady in waiting Maria (Nancy Robinette) and sardonic jester Feste (Floyd King) is reasonably disreputable, which greatly annoys her priggish majordomo Malvolio (Philip Goodwin). Orsino dispatches Viola – who has adopted the name of Cesario – to press his suit upon Olivia. Olivia, seeing Cesario, immediately falls in love with her, who she thinks is a him. This horrifies Viola, who tries, without effect, to deflect Olivia’s amorous attentions back toward the Duke. In the meantime, Maria conspires with Toby’s retinue to play an awful trick on Malvolio: she forges a letter in Olivia’s hand, expressing a love for Malvolio which would be enhanced if he would only do a bunch of ridiculous things, and then leaves it for Malvolio to find. In the further meantime, Sebastian – not dead at all – lands in Illyria, and goes about the town being mistaken for Viola-disguised-as-Cesario. Eventually Olivia spies him, and, thinking him to be Cesario, sweeps him up in her arms in a last-ditch attempt to win his love. Sebastian astonishes her by responding in kind, and within moments – I think this happens in real time – they are married.
You can pretty much guess the rest (or, if you can’t, go see the show – it’s free – and satisfy your curiosity.) Those of you who saw the production directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman in 2008 will be impressed with the way director Alan Paul has altered it. Taichman’s Twelfth Night was essentially a drama with comedic moments. For example, Taichman’s Sir Toby was a mean drunk, surly and threatening, and his running buddy Fabian (played then, as now, by the excellent J. Fred Shiffman) was a heavy-duty alcoholic heading for an early grave. Taichman’s Olivia was a hysteric, in love with the extremity of her own emotions. Viola also seemed a little unstable, and her scenes with Olivia always had an edgy explosiveness to them. Perhaps most significantly, Taichman’s Viola bore almost no resemblance to her Sebastian, which made Olivia’s mistaken identification of him a cynical comment on the capriciousness of love. It was funny – sometimes uproariously so – but it was substantial, too.
Paul, a Taichman protégé, keeps the most striking elements of Taichman’s original production – the rain of rose petals, for example, and the windswept look of Orsino’s home (Riccardo Hernandez does the set design) but offers a new set of bones. Cooper’s Sir Toby is amiable, fatuous, and larger-than-life; he plays him as Jackie Gleason might have played him, or even W.C. Fields. He is still a schemer but not a menacing one, and it is surprising to observe the degree to which this dials down the tension. Cooper is a marvelous instrument for this intention; he is a very funny man, and he makes Sir Toby likeable – not always an easy task. Fabian still has his drunk scene, but outside of it he is sober and reasonably responsible. Paul has given Olivia’s retinue permission to go over the top, and they do. They wave their arms (particularly Sir Toby and Malvolio), sing and hoot, and in general act like glorious asses. Nobody goes further over the top than Story as Sir Andrew, who scampers, screeches, and dances balletically across the stage, topping himself by mooning Maria as she enters the room. Don’t get me wrong; this is all hilarious stuff, and Story, a brilliantly gifted comic actor, pulls everything off perfectly. But there is no sense of danger; we are at every moment aware that in real life people don’t act this way.
For his principal plot Paul pulls his actors back a bit from where Taichman had them. Agnew’s Olivia is no hysteric. She is, instead, a woman who is used to having her own way, and when she sees “Cesario“ she is determined to get him. She is relentless but never out of control, and Viola’s reactions to her are somewhat like those of a mouse in the presence of a boa constrictor. If anyone seems like a hysteric in this production it is Orsino, who moons after Olivia without actually knowing her very well.
In Pumariega and Harrison, Paul has found actors who resemble each other in significant ways, and after coiffing and dressing them identically (Miranda Hoffman designs the costumes) you can believe that someone might mistake one for the other at first glance. Harrison speaks at the top of the masculine range (Ursula Meyer is the voice coach) to further enhance the impression. This, of course, does not explain how Olivia could fall in love with a boy whose voice marks him as pre-pubescent, but it makes it easier for us to suspend disbelief. (Oddly, the play opens with Olivia’s resolve to disguise herself as a eunuch, but makes no further mention of this plan, which would have disrupted everything.)
A few words about Feste: Shakespeare wrote him as a sort of depressed jester, a man who has known sorrow and emptiness. In the film version, Ben Kingsley played him as a sort of anti-jester, an emotional black hole with a core of ice. King, one of the warmest actors on the Washington stage, doesn’t do that, but he does give Feste a knowing sadness, which reminds us, through all this manic and hard-won joy, that there is sadness too.
Shakespeare Theatre’s technical elements are among the best in the area, and they are all on display here – from the opening moments, when Viola is suspended in mid-air against a green background so that we can see her swimming to escape her doom, through the rain of rose petals and the graceful dancers who move in and out of scenes at crucial moments to the final moments, when Feste, alone on the stage, sings a haunting lament. Among the best of these elements is Martin Desjardens’s sonorous, beautiful original music – which, among other things, allows the play to highlight King’s robust singing voice.
Alan Paul’s Twelfth Night is not a subtle piece of work – he’ll make sure you get the joke – but that’s just fine, particularly when done as part of the Shakespeare Free-For-All. As I’ve said before, the Free-For-All is the perfect place for someone who is new to Shakespeare, and uncertain whether he will enjoy it or not. You can, for the cost of a ride on the Metro, see Shakespeare done by top actors and using impeccable production values. And if you don’t like it, you can cross it off your bucket list, knowing that you’ll never enjoy Shakespeare. But if you do like it, you’ve opened yourself to the work of the best writer in the English language, and in any other.
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Alan Paul
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Free-For-All
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Twelfth Night runs thru Sept 5, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.
Peter Marks . Washington Post