Visiting the Ilyrian Casbah: Center Stage Does TWELFTH NIGHT Proud

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Visiting the Ilyrian Casbah: Center Stage Does TWELFTH NIGHT Proud

12th Night

Posted on March 14, 2014

William Shakespeare‘s Twelfth Night is a confection, a treat full of wonderful things: music, romance, mistaken identities, gender confusion, practical joking, and love. It is in fact one of Shakespeare’s two or three most delightful plays.

And yet, like all of Shakespeare’s comedies, the more confectionary ones and the “problem comedies” alike, it has a dark undertone to it, an almost constant subliminal note of loss and insecurity. The events that set it off are a traumatic shipwreck from which brother and sister Sebastian and Viola are rescued, each believing the other dead, and the deeply troubling death of a brother of the Countess Olivia which has plunged her into exaggerated mourning. Moreover, there is a sense of continued and somewhat unsettling disorientation that surrounds virtually everyone. Both the genders and the sexual orientations of the Sebastian and Viola, and hence those of the two older nobles who will end up marrying them, Countess Olivia and Duke Orsino, are open to question. Olivia’s steward Malvolio is a jerk and a both upper- and lower-case Puritan, but hardly deserves the nasty trick that the rest of Olivia’s household play on him, so we know this is a world in which really bad things can happen to only moderately bad people. And sea captain Antonio, Sebastian’s rescuer and apparently would-be lover, takes unreasonable risks because of his love for Sebastian, and is apparently still in jeopardy because of those risks while the happy couples ignore him and dance through the closing. It is no wonder that Feste the clown, one of only two totally unconfused characters in the play, bases much of his schtick upon how deluded and foolish everyone is, including himself. He may be poking fun, but with a stick that is frequently too pointed for comfort.

A really good production of the play, such as the one now gracing the boards of Center Stage in Baltimore, will give us all of this. The inspired choice at the heart of this beautiful realization of Shakespeare’s vision is the creation of Illyria, the neverland in which Shakespeare set the play. There was no Illyria in Shakespeare’s time, and really had been no such nation since Roman times. Whatever Shakespeare was going for, it was not constricted by any realities contemporary to him. This meant that director Gavin Witt was free in turn to fashion something that in 21st-Century terms would correspond to Shakespeare’s fantasy. And what he presents is a kind of amalgam of the Marx Brothers’ Freedonia and the Warner Brothers‘ Casablanca. There are slinky evening gowns you might see at Rick’s Café Americain. There is a hat that echoes a fez. There is an outfit like a Greek soldier’s. Sebastian and Viola wear plus-fours and Norfolk jackets, topped with newsboy hats. The costumes, by designer David Burdick, all fit together and, together with the set by Josh Epstein which suggests a colonnaded white town overlooking the Adriatic (locus of the ancient Illyria), convey a world between the two World Wars. It is at once idyllic and dangerous, as we know Europe’s Balkan neighborhoods have always been and especially were then. Characters may be eavesdropping from behind beach umbrellas rather than bushes, but there’s still some not-totally-innocent eavesdropping going on.

Witt has turned a fine cast loose in this setting.

Carolyn Hewitt and Buddy Haardt, as Viola and Sebastian, look alike enough not to overstrain the implausibility of them being mistaken for each other physically, though there is no effort to make them sound the same (despite the Duke’s claim that they have “one voice”). Each makes the most of his part, especially Hewitt, who is given some of Shakespeare’s most wonderful lines to say. Orsino and Olivia may go for the extravagant swoony stuff that is meant to be poetic and musical though also fatuous, but Viola’s reproaches of Olivia are sharp and well-taken, and an actress like Hewitt can have a lot of fun with them, particularly when there’s double-entendre material referring to Viola’s own love for the oblivious Duke. Give a Shakespeare heroine the kind of agency that comes with an assumed masculine identity, and you get a striking truth-teller (think Portia in Merchant of Venice or Rosalind in As You Like It).

Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s uncle, is a likeable figure of fun and a not-so-likeable figure of greed, and the trick of the part is to figure out where to strike the balance. Brian Reddy nudges Toby more into the greed category, as he gulls his buddy/victim, Andrew Aguecheek (Richard Hollis), to spend and spend in a suit for Olivia’s hand that is foredoomed by Aguecheek’s inconsequentiality and dissipation. Reddy’s Toby is delightfully sinister. You definitely would not want to buy a used niece from this man.

I can also report good things about William Connell’s Orsino, slightly epicene, dangling cigarettes while listening to love songs (Edith Piaf to be precise) on the record player, Allen McCullough as a sturdy and well-thought-out (if slightly under-malevolent) Malvolio, and Vanessa Wasche, who manages, in her portrayal of Olivia, to look simultaneously slinky and farcical in any kind of dress while envisaging one of Shakespeare’s most amusing portraits of the follies of love.

But for my money the prize performance is turned in by Julie-Ann Elliott as Maria, the servant who comes up with the scheme that trips up Malvolio. In my experience, Maria usually gets the kind of accent sported by the downstairs characters at Downton Abbey. This Maria seems almost regal, and definitely lives upstairs and talks the upstairs talk. And this rendering was a revelation to me. No longer a shrewd observer of her betters, she now possesses an aristocrat’s breadth of view. When Toby Belch marries her in most productions, he’s raising her status as a reward for that shrewdness. Here it seems as if the favor may be being done to Toby. Elliott makes maturity and clear-sightedness seem much sexier than the ingénue qualities of Olivia and the (to say the least) still somewhat unformed femininity of Viola.

The one real mistake in casting was Linda Kimbrough as Feste. Granted, the whole concept of conventional casting is a somewhat artificial construct when one is speaking of Shakespeare, whose original casts were all male. But that was not by Shakespeare’s choice; unconventional casting was all he had. And I would posit that in a mixed-gender cast in a comedy where gender identity and gender roles are at the root of the fun, conventional casting is a must. (The more cacophonous the piece, the greater the importance of the orchestra tuning to the concertmaster’s A to start with.) Moreover, this Feste does not seem to be presented as male, despite the male pronoun that Shakespeare at least once uses for the character (and the closing song mentioning the singer as having once been “a little tiny boy” and now having come “to man’s estate”). Kimbrough’s Feste seems to be presented as a woman – except maybe when Feste pretends to be a curate sent to determine Malvolio’s sanity. And apart from perhaps unintentional gender confusion, I had no idea what Kimbrough brought to the role. She didn’t make Feste seem all that witty or all that insightful. Her singing (and this character is the singer who matters in this very musical play) was adequate but not exciting. (To be fair, Palmer Heffernan’s original music isn’t very exciting either.) My sense was Kimbrough was a fine actress in the wrong role.

Fortunately, there is so much going on right in this wonderful performance of a wonderful play that an uninspiring note or two matters little. Somehow the vulnerability of Witt’s recreated Illyria underlying the farce makes the joy in the show shine all the brighter. There will never be a definitive production of any Shakespeare play, but this is one of the truly special ones.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo

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