Director Gavin Witt’s version of Twelfth Night, now at Center Stage, begins in the lobby, where clips from atmospheric movies like Casablanca, Sullivan’s Travels, and Quai des Brumes play on a big screen. Everybody stops to watch. A banner explains that, “This theatrical jaunt (Twelfth Night) pays homage to Hollywood’s Golden Years and the artistic influences of Film Noir and Screwball Comedy.”
The jaunt ends at your bookcase, or on your iPad, or wherever you go to open the text and reread that last song, which follows you out of the theater. The song sounds light enough to seal a happy ending, but something in it isn’t happy. Why not, you wonder? Didn’t all end well? The song is five quatrains in which verse two repeats: “With a hey, ho, the wind and the rain,” and so does verse four: “For the rain it raineth every day.”
“A great while ago the world begun,” the last quatrain acknowledges, “with a hey, ho, the wind and the rain: but that’s all one, our play is done, and we’ll strive to please you every day.” Even though it’s raining.
If the words themselves slip past your sensors, you can infer that maybe only some is well, not all, from how Feste sings: she sings like an accountant, with a look of indifference on her face, as if to suggest that she doesn’t believe what she’s saying, but she doesn’t doubt it either. Doubt would require more investment than she cares to make. And she’s wearing an ivory satin evening gown, the sort of costume you expect to see on one of the lovers involved in the happy ending, not on the fool. What’s going on there?
One remembers a phrase on a wall in the lobby: “Darker Truths in Veils of Lightness.”
“This play accepts, with incredible empathy, a notion of love across a far wider spectrum than we often allow ourselves to think about,” Witt explains in the playbill. “For me, Twelfth Night is a love story not only in the conventional sense, but [also] as a story of the act of love and the art of loving.” Which doesn’t go so well for everyone.
That approach to the play might explain why this production is dominated by characters on the edges of the love story, the ones who aren’t much good at love, not the ones in the middle of it.
The middle of the story goes like this: Orsino is in love with Olivia, but she won’t accept his advances because she’s in mourning for her father and her brother, though that mourning doesn’t keep her from getting the hots for Orsino’s messenger, Cesario, who is really Viola pretending to be a man so she can serve Orsino, with whom she has fallen in love after surviving a shipwreck and washing ashore in Illyria, his duchy.
Orsino feels something for Viola as well, which puzzles him because he likes women and he thinks Viola is a man, and they have a couple of strong scenes together, one in which Orsino leans back between Viola’s legs — leans back until the nape of his neck is flush against her axis — and waxes on Olivia’s beauty while Viola shaves him. In the other he leans close to her face, and closer, until it seems clear that they will kiss, at which point he daubs a loose eyelash from the corner of her eye, and she grabs his hand and blows the eyelash off the tip of his finger, wishing, one supposes, she might be released from her false manhood so that he can love her.
That wish comes true when Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, shows up, and Olivia mistakes him for her. “Will you please just come to bed with me already?” she asks him, in effect, thinking he’s Viola/Cesario. Sebastian can’t believe his luck. He gives Olivia what Viola/Cesario wouldn’t/couldn’t give her, and afterwards the siblings re-unite, which obviates the need for Viola to pretend she’s a man, which makes it permissible for Orsino to love her, so two and two, male and female: all is well.
Or maybe only some is well.
The biggest characters in this production are Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s uncle, and Malvolio, her butler, one of whom is painfully inept at both the act and the art of love, and the other doesn’t seem to give a damn about it, perhaps because he doesn’t have a chance.
Allen McCullough plays the butler with a brooding, military masculinity which seems to be at war with inner prissiness. He has a handsome square face with a charcoal colored mustache, and wears a charcoal colored tunic with the square pockets of a Legionnaire’s uniform. His primary domestic task appears to be curtailing Toby’s joie de vivre.
“Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?” Toby asks him at one point.
Brian Reddy’s Toby is round in every way Malvolio is square: his head is round, his face is round, his belly — which he stabilizes with a cummerbund — is so round that his jacket can’t be closed. He is round with people who suggest he curb his appetites: he first opens his mouth to tell a scolding Maria that he’s sure “care is an enemy to life.” Enthusiasm for the moment is his modus operandi. He can’t think past now, or won’t, which makes him seem to occupy each moment by choice, and keeps him from considering the future or the past. The present is a stage where he acts out his life. He savors the words that he speaks, and he shows drunkenness not by slurring or by stumbling but by speaking with more care. His scenes with Andrew Aguecheek (Richard Hollis), his drinking buddy, play like language slapstick.
Closes April 13, 2014
700 N. Calvert Street
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $19 – $59
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Malvolio’s love for Olivia is the kind of open secret that makes him an easy target: what could be more fun than making him believe he’s finally going to get some? The scenes in which Malvolio is tricked into humiliating himself are the best of the night, by far, in part because they aren’t just funny: this Malvolio is no buffoon. He loves Olivia, but he doesn’t know the art of loving, so he suffers.
The movie clips on the screen in the lobby establish the look of this production, but they set an undertone as well. Linda DeLibero, Director of Film and Media Studies at Johns Hopkins University, writes in the playbill that the screwball genre “thumbed its nose at the Production Code, which sought to preserve Hollywood movies as advertisements for the American way of life: no sex, no violence, no moral turpitude.” And Witt says that the more he thought about Film Noir, the more he sensed “a heightened encounter with the world, a heightened sense of consequence.”
“[Those movies] share a comfortable embrace of the absurd,” he writes, “invested with a genuine sense of emotional truth that to me feels absolutely in synch with this play.”
A great while ago the world began with wind and rain, in other words, but that’s all one — or “It’s all good,” as people say today, to avoid admitting that it isn’t.
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Directed by Gavin Witt. Featuring William Connell, Julie-Ann Elliot, Buddy Haardt, Caroline Hewitt, Richard Hollis, Linda Kimbrough, Allen McCullough, Ryan McCurdy, Jon Hudson Odom, Brian Reddy, and Vanessa Wasche. Scenic and Lighting Designer: Joshua Epstein . Costume Designer: David Burdick . Sound/Composer Designer: Palmer Hefferan . Hair and Wig Designer: Linda Cavell . Choreography: Catherine Miller . Fight Choreography: Steven Satta . Dramaturg: Faedra Chatard Carpenter . Stage Manager: Laura Smith, assisted by Captain Kate Murphy and Caitlin Powers . Produced by Center Stage . Reviewed by Mark Dewey.