Twelfth Night’s ingenious balance of comedy and melancholy poses a perennial challenge for Shakespeare directors. When Robert Hupp, artistic director of Arkansas Repertory, mused about this with me a couple of years ago, he noted that directors must choose to play up the drama’s low comedy or its darker element, evoked by scenes involving Sir Toby Belch and company’s malicious ridicule of Malvolio.
In pondering whether they should emphasize the romantic tale of Olivia and the Duke or the comic subplot of the debauched Sir Toby, Hupp says directors must ask themselves, “Are we going to urge the audience to laugh at Malvolio or feel sad for him?”
Aided by a semi-stroke of brilliant casting, director Sidney Berger encourages viewers to empathize with Olivia’s social-climbing steward during the Houston Shakespeare Festival’s fourth staging of Twelfth Night since 1975. Berger and his creative team present a colorful, quasi-neoclassical rendition of this mature comedy, mostly uncluttered by contemporary deviations from Shakespeare’s script. In part because of their strong execution of the riotous subplot, the love triangle involving Viola, Olivia and Orsino flounders and then falls flat as all identities are revealed. A failure to monitor the players’ microphones also weakened the show on opening night, at least for those seated behind the first few rows.
On many levels, the action of Twelfth Night is driven by individual fantasies and attempts at wish fulfillment, hence the play’s alternate title, What You Will—an opaque phrase whose original meaning translates as “what you wish.” Stranded by a shipwreck, Viola, Shakespeare’s cross-dressing heroine, injects lively romance into the desultory lives of the mourning Countess Olivia and sentiment-filled Orsino, the Duke of Illyria. When Viola enters the Duke’s life disguised as a young page named “Cesario,” Orsino sees his chance to seduce Olivia, using Cesario as his messenger medium.
Posing as a boy, the actor playing Viola must seem plausible as a woman distraught by loss and separation, a surrogate wooer of Olivia on her new master’s behalf, and an object of the Duke’s growing affection in scenes dripping with sexual irony. During the HSF production, Jennifer Cherry’s impersonation of “Cesario” fails to meet the inherent challenges of this demanding role. Convincingly costumed, she is mildly entertaining as she woos Olivia by proxy, but during her repartee with Duke Orsino, she comes across as ham-handed, neglecting many nuances in the verse. Playing Orsino, Ilich Guardiola seems stiff and uneven, beginning with the play’s familiar opening lines, “If music be the food of love, play on, / Give me excess of it.”
Cherry and other cast members are occasionally guilty of excessive mugging, amateurish gesturing, and gratuitous movement. Their nervous energy detracts from what their lines are supposed to communicate. Celeste Roberts as Olivia occasionally overplays, but offers a striking presence onstage. Clad in provocative brown velvet tucked into a full-length gold skirt, she is a beguiling man-chaser. David Wald’s vision of the sardonic Feste, Olivia’s wise fool, feels tentative. The decision to have Feste vigorously strum his guitar in the style of a busker begging in a New York subway clashes with the formal, pre-20th century effect of Katherine Snider’s costume design.
Berger’s directing of the subplot has a light touch, building toward a climactic scene that evokes more empathy for the ambitious servant than the derision elicited by other directors. Overall, the story of how Viola up-ends the hollow lives of Illyria’s mismatched aristocrats is overshadowed by the virtuoso performance of Paul Hope as Malvolio. Malvolio, a name whose Latin roots mean “ill wish” or “ill will,” is nearly undone when he dares to wish to marry his mistress and improve his social position. Using deft understatement in early scenes, Hope presents Malvolio as, by turns, obedient toward Olivia, imperious toward Sir Toby and company, blithely opportunistic, and sympathetically forlorn. Kate Revnell-Smith as Maria, Olivia’s woman-in-waiting, shows complete command, duping the ambitious steward with impressive aplomb.
The actors playing Sir Toby and company are a delightful complement to the superlative touch of Hope and Revnell-Smith. Skilled comic actor Rutherford Cravens offers a slurring, edgy Sir Toby Belch, who nurses a whisky flask in several sight gags. In the show’s first half, Guy Roberts (Sir Andrew Aguecheek) is funny as Belch’s drinking companion, but in the show’s second half he comes across as overly foppish. (Having him wear pigtails after the intermission is over the top, considering that he courts Olivia himself.) Caleb George as Olivia’s servant, Fabian, is pleasingly animated.
Ingenious choreography enhances the suspense when Malvolio mistakes a letter in Maria’s hand for a romantic overture by Olivia. Eavesdropping on the steward, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian dart in and out of the arches of a loggia situated stage right. Reading the forged letter, Hope is engagingly gullible while the others gleefully look on. Jonathan Middents’ scenic design, especially during this boffo scene, is a pleasure to behold. Middents’ later idea to imprison Malvolio in the base of a classical statue is also well conceived.
Over the centuries, the hilarious antics of Maria and Sir Toby, in their plot to trick Malvolio, have always threatened to steal this show. The threat at HSF is that without this comic relief, their current production of Twelfth Night would be far less satisfying.
The Houston Shakespeare Festival’s production of Twelfth Night plays through August 8 at Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park, 100 Concert Drive, Houston, TX 77030. Admission is free. Free reserved seating is released at the box office, on the day of the performance. Call the box office at (281) FREE-FUN or visit www.houstonfestivalscompany.com.