A new staging of Twelfth Night, co-produced by the Prague Shakespeare Company and Houston’s Main Street Theatre, seems to sidestep the challenges presented by Shakespeare’s elegant balance of comedy and melancholy by dwelling on the comic subplot that features Sir Toby Belch. Sir Toby, Shakespeare’s inebriated, impecunious knight, has more lines than any other character in this play, so his role has the potential to co-opt the play’s dark exploration of the cruel plot perpetrated against Malvolio.
In director Rebecca Greene Udden’s version of Shakespeare’s final Elizabethan comedy, Sir Toby Belch’s drinking, frolicking, and belching is so extreme that it even involves the audience on several occasions. Her emphasis is in line with the play’s association with English pre-Lenten celebration that involved eating, songs, dance, masques, and general misrule that Elizabethan audiences would have indulged in on the eve of January 6th, or Twelfth Night, the Feast of the Epiphany. Melissa Carson’s costume designs are especially elegant and striking in this co-production.
The play’s central plot revolves around Viola, the twin sister of Sebastian, who is washed up on the shores of Illyria and forced to assume the male persona of ‘Cesario’ and serve as a page in the court of Duke Orsino. The Duke is infatuated with the eligible but distant Olivia, a grief-stricken countess who can’t get past the need to mourn her recently deceased father and brother. Both Orsino, who is more in love with the idea of love, and Olivia, guilty of an excess of grief, are jolted into reality when Cesario comes into the picture. Orsino enlists Cesario to woo Olivia on his behalf, but the plan quickly goes awry when Olivia falls for the young page.
Actor Jessica Boone, who is well cast as the young, androgynous Cesario, deftly and subtly woos Olivia on Orsino’s behalf, especially in the play’s first half. Playing Orsino, Charles Frederick Secrease comes across well as the idle aristocrat, lacking in self-knowledge and fixated on his unrequited love. Within the love triangle, actor Jan Thompson (who besides acting, serves as the British ambassador to the Czech Republic) is most convincing as the quiet aristocrat, resigned to give over her life and her youth to a life of mourning.
Complicating the main plot is Olivia’s riotous uncle, Sir Toby Belch, a knight whose fortunes are at a low point, forcing him to live off of his richer kinswoman. He presides over his own “court” of sycophants, including Maria (Olivia’s gentlewoman), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (his drinking companion), and Fabian (Olivia’s gentleman). We might associate Sir Toby with the good and the bad of unbridled indulgence in the pre-Lenten season. By contrast, Malvolio, Olivia’s lead servant and a paragon of abstinence, disapproves of the merrymaking of Sir Toby and his lot. Tiring of Malvolio's pompous ways, Maria forges a letter, ostensibly written by Olivia, and dupes The Steward into believing that her mistress has designs on him.
Actor Guy Roberts transforms Sir Toby Belch into a cavorting and gamboling buffoon who hides flasks of drink in every imaginable crevice on his body and his kinswoman's house, even filching a bottle of beer that belonged to a bemused spectator during Thursday night’s performance. Carrying out Maria’s practical joke, actor Bree Welch offers a cleverly understated counterpoint to Roberts’ overly raucous interpretation. As the preening squire, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the blond-wigged Jay DeYonker offers the best visual portrait of this legendary fop that I’ve ever seen. Jonathan Teverbaugh’s delightful vision of Fabian is very sensitive to the nuances of Shakespeare’s verse.
Playing Malvolio, Bill Roberts offers a convincing portrait of the unpopular Puritan in a household of revelers. Peter Hosking’s performance as Feste is solid and satisfying, but on occasion his verse was difficult to follow.
The love and lunacy found in Shakespeare’s earlier, mature comedies such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing are not punctuated by the dark realism that permeates Twelfth Night. The Prague Shakespeare Company/Main Street Theatre co-production pays excessive attention to the play’s lords of misrule, drawing our attention away from Shakespeare’s equally important focus on the awakening (or spiritual “unmasking”) of Olivia and Orsino, two aristocrats who are self-deluded at the outset, as well as the gravity of the cruel joke perpetrated against a social-climbing steward who styles himself as a corrective to the excess of Sir Toby Belch’s “court”.