Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Review of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" at People's Light, published in the Philadelphia Theater Review

You enter the theater and walk into a seaside realm of ocean noises, multicolored tiled floors and marble arches, a mysterious piano player (playing excellent original music), and brilliantly costumed players already moving about, inhabiting a world inside of ours.

What land is this? Why, Illyria; where director Abigail Adams has indeed created a magnificent world for People’s Light’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. And Shakespeare’s comedy, telling the story of mistaken identity, love unrequited and love found, contains some of his most poetic and clever language.

But as Shakespeare’s fool cautions in the play, “A sentence is but a soft glove to a good wit; how quickly the wrong side may be turned outward.”

Which becomes the problem with the staging of this entire play. Where the play calls for lover’s charm, the actors are fussy (Mary Elizabeth Scalen’s Olivia), exasperating (Miriam Hyman’s Viola), or lifeless (Christopher Patrick Mullen’s Orsino). When the text requires an engaging wit or lively humor, the delivery is inconsistent (Jason Ma’s Feste and Lenny Haas’ Aguecheek), or absent (Graham Smith’s Toby), and only Mark Lazar’s Fabian and Elizabeth Webster Duke’s Maria (the most minor of these roles) succeed at all.

A striking example of all this: the comic subplot of the play revolves around the mistreatment of Olivia’s steward Malvolio (the rare excellent portrayal by Kevin Bergen) by Olivia’s fool (Feste), at the urging of her uncle Toby. Toby’s a drunk, to whom Shakespeare devotes some of the funniest passages of the entire play, whereas Malvolio’s a stiff Puritan, and the foil of all his humor. Yet rather than take advantage of what the text offers, Adams has Smith’s Toby speak his lines either in a drunken (and mildly violent) rampage, or slurred inaudibly out of the side of his mouth, rendering what should be an amiable, revelrous character into a irritating substance abuser. To top it off, his accomplices (Maria, Aguecheek, and Feste) in deceiving Malvolio become little more than his enablers, and it’s a wonder that they’re taken in with him at all.

But not all is rotten in Illyria, and the minor characters (which Adams leaves alone) all play their parts well, particularly Andrew Honeycutt’s endearing Sebastian and the earlier mentioned humor of Lazar and Duke. But their performances aren’t enough to salvage the bulk of the merriment or charm lost by this performance.

I would have loved to enjoy this production. Shakespeare’s play contains everything to recommend it, and yet Adams throws most of that away in exchange for a surface of outstanding production values, leaving behind not only Shakespeare’s humor and charm, but also the un- and underused talents of the cast.

Or to let Shakespeare tell it, when he later has Toby ask of Illyria, “is this a world to hide virtues in?” At People’s Light, unfortunately so.

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