Twelfth Night is often considered Shakespeare’s last “true” comedy. Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and other such "lighthearted" frolics follow, and you can see some hints in Twelfth Night of the darkness to come. Not everyone finds a happy ending, and the comedy crosses into sadism at times. The Shakespeare Theatre’s production handles this strangely bitter comedy with aplomb; however, its power is dulled by some limp acting.
As a twin myself, the opening to Twelfth Night has always made me a little uneasy. Our heroine, Viola, washes up on the shores of Illyria after losing her twin brother Sebastian at sea. Thus cleaved in two, she disguises herself as a boy, both for protection and perhaps as a subconscious attempt to revive her other half. Bereaved and friendless, she finds employment as a page boy in the service of Duke Orsino, who orders the newly frocked “Cesario” to court an unmoved lady friend, Countess Olivia, on his behalf. The wooing backfires, however, when Olivia falls for the comely page boy instead. While the rich people play at love, their servants play at revenge, in a sort of precursor to “upstairs/downstairs” comedies. Olivia’s household steward, Malvolio, is a little too high-handed in his treatment of the members of the household, including Olivia’s fool, Feste; her attendant, Maria; her drunken uncle, Sir Toby Belch; and his foppish drinking buddy, Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Maria, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew plot and execute a mean-spirited practical joke to repay Malvolio for his pomposity. Things get out of hand for all involved until Feste seems like the only sane person in all of Illyria. And then Sebastian—surprise!—shows up, confusing matters even more.
Director Rebecca Bayla Taichman, who previously directed the sexy Taming of the Shrew for the company, finds most of the meat here in the secondary characters. Although the play is principally about the shipwrecked Viola (Samantha Soule) and her adventures down the rabbit hole, Soule is continuously upstaged by the antics of the natives. Floyd King is often cast in the Shakespeare Theatre’s productions, and no wonder. He has extraordinary confidence and ease with the language. This frees him from battling with the traps of Shakespeare’s tongue-twisters as he digs deeply into the role of Feste. This Feste is a study in contrasts: nimble yet weary, sweet yet malicious, pragmatic yet wistful. Feste carries around a beat-up, squashed old hat that he uses to demand pay for his antics. The prop is a clever touch, implying that Feste has tired of jokes for their own sake. If he is going to perform, then he will be compensated for his trouble.
Ted van Griethuysen is the other big reason to see this show, imbuing Malvolio with considerable humanity and nuance. Take Malvolio’s exit line, in which the steward vows revenge for a cruel trick that has been played on him. The line is often played for laughs, but van Griethuysen delivers the line with such wounded hurt that I immediately sided with him over his zany tormentors. Another tasty morsel in the cast is Tom Story, who plays Sir Andrew Aguecheek, one of the aforementioned tormentors. Story doesn’t illicit guffaws so much as darkly amused snickers as he completely forgoes any snippet of dignity to play this idiot.
It is a good thing the underbelly of Illyria is so enticing, because the masters and mistresses are not so much. Christopher Innvar, who was visceral and scorching as Petruchio in Taichman’s Shrew, is bland here as Duke Orsino and generates little heat with Soule. Soule is difficult to understand, rushing through her lines in a thin, soft voice. Peter Katona as her twin Sebastian is too eager by half. I felt much more comfortable in the hands of the veteran actors, and was ready for the young pups to vamoose whenever they appeared on stage.
And now, a word about the petals. 41,000 red rose petals are dropped per show, which makes my inner stagehand want to curl up and die. The petal showers are absolutely gorgeous. They drop whenever a character falls in love, signifying the randomness and quickness (and perhaps the superficiality) of Cupid’s arrow. They also, amusingly, undercut the solemnity of “falling in love.” The set, by Riccardo Hernandez, is lovely as well, all deep crimson reds and swirling angles. The costumes, by Miranda Hoffman, are timeless with a dash of bohemia. There is also live music provided by five musicians and a singer. The music is haunting and dramatic and weaves through the evening, adding sensuousness and depth.
Taichman, again, demonstrates her sure hand as a director, delivering an evocative production that showcases her flair for the visually striking. (Be prompt, because the show’s opening is breathtaking.) She’s a valuable asset to the theater, and I hope to see her work again (albeit with a few different casting choices.) Taichman’s only major stumble occurs during the final scene of the night, in which Feste sings about the whirligig of time. King performs the ballad like it’s a funeral dirge for his mother, and the whole effect is just weird and out of place. For the most part, though, Taichman balances the light and dark halves of Twelfth Night, adding depth to former and levity to the latter.
Twelfth Night plays through January 4, 2009 at the Sidney Harman Hall in Washington D.C. Tickets range from $23.50 to $79.50. To reserve tickets, please call (202) 547-1122.