The “spirit of childhood” is not exactly the first association one makes with Twelfth Night, revolving as it does around more adult matters like courtship, grief, and dirty jokes. Yet director Carmen Khan has chosen to invoke this spirit for the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s production of the play, marrying it with a Jazz Age setting for an intriguingly breezy interpretation.
Bethanie Wampol’s set is fairly minimalist. The wooden thrust stage, stairs, and framed arch are carried over from the theater’s production of Macbeth, currently running in rep; the only added structure is the delicate railing running along the back of the platform. However, smaller details of the set dressing work well to convey a sense of place: billowing white curtains mark Orsino’s mansion, and the colors of the cyclorama change with the mood and the characters’ fortunes.
Costume designer Vickie Esposito has somewhat more mixed success. Viola and Sebastian are clearly supposed to be dressed identically in white suits with distinctive cerulean argyle sweaters, but her trousers are of an obviously modern skinny cut, and he never wears the accompanying tan pageboy cap. Meanwhile, Olivia’s clothing needs tailoring and her ghillies in her final scene appear to have been chosen solely because their thin soles keep actress Elise Hudson of a height with the other actors, not because they match the setting or Olivia’s personal style. However, for the most part the costumes reflect the cheerful tone of the production. The color palette is bright without being overwhelming, an echo of the rainbow umbrellas featured throughout, and there are several cleverly evocative details. Sir Toby’s kepi and gaiters suggest an adventurous military origin and contrast with the clashing patterns of Sir Andrew’s golf ensemble. Feste, meanwhile, is dressed in red and gold Regency-era breeches, waistcoat, and cravat with a black coat, the period analogue to a modern magician wearing old-fashioned evening wear. Several characters’ wardrobes evolve as the play progresses – Orsino’s blue silk pajamas give way to a white suit and teal shirt not unlike “Cesario’s”, and Olivia and Maria start in dark structured dresses and end in relaxed flowing pastels – a visual symbol of their emotional transformations.
One of the most successful invocations of the spirit of childhood is Deaon Griffin-Pressley’s portrayal of Orsino, whose tumultuous onslaught of emotions seem to have been transported straight from his teenage years. Griffin-Pressley plays each and every feeling as both incredibly intense and incredibly genuine; music, the food of love, reduces him to a writhing ball of sensibility on the floor, rising only to burst into a tortured singalong. The result is hilarious and endearing – particularly to Julia Jensen Ray’s Viola, who clearly shares a sympathy with Orsino’s strength of feeling. Jensen Ray plays Viola with an interesting degree of vulnerability and emotionality. Her decision to pose as Cesario seems less like an attempt to explore her identity and make her own way than an impulsive decision whose complications are as baffling to Viola as to everyone else; her only anchor is her unrequited dedication to Orsino. It is a somewhat unusual take on the character, and not unsuccessful: Act II, Scene 4 in particular is deeply amusing, thanks to Jensen Ray’s depiction of the clash between Viola’s sympathetic appreciation of Orsino’s musical torment and her desperate discomfort at being forced to observe it while laying right next to him. However, making Viola so uncertain erodes one of the driving forces of the play – especially since her battle of wits with Feste, a scene inspired only by her own appreciation and defense of her cleverness, has been cut from the production.
As a result, the anti-Malvolio plotline gains greater prominence, helped along by the cast’s energetic performances. Rob Kahn reprises his role as Malvolio for the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre to great success, the perfect mix of overbearing butlery dignity, a complete lack of positive social skills, and sock garters with matching yellow bathing costume. Elise Hudson gives Olivia a genuine (if fully platonic) affection for her prickly servant, unreservedly taking his part when the prank upon him is revealed and bestowing a sweet kiss on his forehead when he grudgingly puts off his promise of revenge in order to serve drinks at the engagement party/musical number that concludes the play. William LeDent is a brash Sir Toby, at first only interested in drinking from the endless array of bottles secreted about his person; LeDent keeps his careless but funny attitude constant, but alludes to Sir Toby’s increasingly engaging with both the ingenuity needed to execute the prank and his admiration for the brassy Maria (Jenna Kuerzi) by slowly lowering the number of drinks he takes per scene. Though his and others’ treatment of the somewhat sympathetic Malvolio and the definitely sympathetic Sir Andrew (John Zak) borders on cruelty, the production’s allusions to childhood give their pranks and unkindnesses an air of juvenile squabbling as opposed to systematic mistreatment.
Director Carmen Khan uses this repeated kidification to great effect: it downgrades the stakes of the dramatic conflict without lessening its emotional impact in the moment, allowing both pathos and confidence in the happy ending this production provides. The various lovers are content in their choice of partner, despite last minute shake-ups of gender and identity; Malvolio appears to have taken no lasting harm from his mistreatment; Sir Andrew is content to stare besottedly at Olivia even as she dances with her new husband. However, the appeal to childhood does come at the price of deliberately simplifying some aspects of the play. Viola’s cut scene and uncertainty decrease her character’s agency. The play’s questioning of gender and attraction is largely sidestepped: Antonio and Sebastian are unambiguously just friends, Viola changes back into her women’s weeds (a white and unsubtly bridal dress) for maximum heteronormativity, and Orsino’s blurring of her performed gender in the play’s concluding lines is cut.
Yet overall, the light-hearted tone of the production feels earned. The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night is youthful without being childish, capitalizing on the play’s humor and plot twists with energy, wit, and music, and reminding the audience of the lessons learned in the simpler days of childhood: when the rain raineth every day, sometimes the answer is to put up your rainbow umbrella.