The Pearl Theatre Company is well-known for its commitment to classical theater and its repertory company of actors. Twelfth Night starts their 25th anniversary season, but the production isn’t quite as captivating as hoped.
The stage is laid out with a magenta royal entrance with golden chandeliers for Orsino set stage left, contrasting with the more subdued striped and latticed courtyard stage right. Though Olivia’s garden does have an oval pool, Orsino’s balcony seems to jut out over the ocean painted on the backdrop. Michael Gabriel Goodfriend as Orsino wonderfully incorporates the illusionary outdoor setting, looking over the sea from time to time as if he would have to challenge its vast and dangerous waters to win Olivia’s heart. In his gold and white striped tunic, Goodfriend looks like a majestic caliph, touched with poetic melancholy and self-obsession that stems not from arrogance, but from obliviousness to his surroundings, so absorbed with loving Olivia.
The lady of his eye, however, dresses in a long-sleeved black dress with lace veil to deny his unmitigated advances as well as mourn her recent losses. Rachel Botchan plays Olivia dignified and close to the vest, maintaining an exterior of honest confidence, revealing no real distain for Orsino or attraction to Viola to begin. But she is not made of stone; she wipes tears from her cheeks after Viola’s first exit, acts giddily in confidence with the audience, and eventually changes her costume palette from a harsh black to a soft, feminine pink. And although Botchan and Ali Ahn (as Viola) share a lengthy, full-mouthed kiss in the ending scene, it is not enough to revive this Viola.
Ahn plays Viola as if it was an acting exercise or a dry-run before an audition. She breezes through the “Make me a willow cabin at your gate” monologue like she is late for an appointment, and “I left no ring with her” feels predictable and recycled. From her first moments with the sea captain, her character lacks genuine response. Ahn “acts” Viola rather than embodying her. Viola has no cutting wit like Beatrice, no stubborn audacity like Isabella, no supernatural regality like Titania. These characters, as well as other female roles in Shakespeare’s canon, can stand on a noticeable trait. But Viola isn’t even supported by a temporary melancholic disposition like Olivia. Imbuing Viola with passion and vivacious emotion is what lifts her from page to stage. Without the actress and her human experience, Viola is reduced to lifeless rigidity.
Malvolio can also be a difficult role because there is so much material for farce that it can mask his humanity. Dominic Cuskern plays this droll role deftly, with Victorian stiffness in a knee-length, archaic suit jacket. When he enters the drunken scene in burgundy robe and white nightcap, it is painfully clear how antiquated he is. Cuskern also highlights a transformation within Malvolio: he doesn’t end as the puritan who started the play, for desire of Olivia’s wealth and wanted revenge on the tricksters have shaped his nature differently. He is lost between his previous ability to elevate himself through behavior—if not through bought or inherited social status—and the floodgates of emotion and vice have recently opened. We never know where he concludes, since there is no revenge play for the puritan steward.
Bradford Cover’s Sir Toby has a wonderfully strong sense of entitlement paired with casual negligence and wide eyes for Sir Andrew’s purse, not his person. Andrew, played by David L. Townsend, is earnestly foolish in a soft yellow-striped jacket, bowtie, and flat-topped straw hat, like Dick Van Dyke in the fantasy scene from Mary Poppins. Perfectly sincere and gullible, he is an easy target for Sir Toby. Sean McNall takes a fine turn as Feste, but I do wish that older actors would be considered more often for this apparently foolish knave, who holds the wisdom of the world in his pocket, yet is sprightly enough to win smiles. TJ Edwards as Fabian almost upstages Toby, Andrew, and Feste with his guest role in the drunk scene, his excellent drunkenness unencumbered by lines or attempted wit. Sebastian (Joseph Midyett) and Antonio (Jay Stratton) get a little washed over, not taking stage presence until Sebastian succumbs to Olivia and he meets Antonio again during the ending revelation scene.
Scenes involving Malvolio, Cesario, and the rogues in combination—Malvolio’s discovery of the letter; when he displays his yellow, cross-gartered stockings; the attempted duel—are glowing. However, while the crazy antics of the men acting like boys are funny and amusing, they don’t really take advantage of the text, which is littered with bawdy references that in this case are merely glazed over. There is no power behind the action, just gestures and shadows of potential ribbing. Most impressive, however, is the well-executed moment during which Malvolio comes before Olivia to gain retribution and only receives a halfhearted apology. Crushed, as though she literally steps on his chest, his threat of vengeance is only an afterthought. Cuskern underscores the scene with dynamic emotion. With power like that carried throughout, this production would be a smash hit.