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A Fair Show, a Less Fair "Twelfth Night" Hot

J. A. Macfarlane
Written by J. A. Macfarlane     November 12, 2013    
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A Fair Show, a Less Fair "Twelfth Night"

Photos: Scott Gorman

  • Twelfth Night
  • by William Shakespeare
  • Hart House Theatre
  • November 6 - 23, 2013
Acting 4
Costumes 4
Sets 5
Directing 2
Overall 3

Twelfth Night is a play of travels: less so perhaps than Pericles, but the scansion between its scenes is still marked by voyages, from the shipwreck that bereaves twins Viola and Sebastian of one another to Viola-Cesario’s endless missions to Olivia’s house, Feste’s mysterious appearance at Orsino’s court, and Sebastian and Antonio’s arrival in Illyria. Even the second plot, that of Sir Toby and his accomplices, is marked by the drunkard’s need to prevent Sir Andrew from voyaging. The separation between Orsino’s court and Olivia’s house is a basic fact of the play, one that underlies the separation between characters and the possibility – or lack thereof – of communication between them.

So it is manifest nonsense for director Matthew Gorman to set Hart House’s production of the play not only in a single set, but a single set that is clearly a single location as well. It is a beautiful set, with lovely pseudo-Tiffany windows, well-made, solidly built, and clearly impossible to move: the interior of the Elephant bar, owned and run by Olivia, where all the characters of the play eventually congregate, with the occasional help of textual rearrangement. This causes many problems, which we will come to. Also worrisome is the opening non-Shakespearean country song, whose link to the play appears slight, and before even that, though recurring throughout and just as head-scratching, the pre-show soundtrack of what I suspect is meant to be rain but sounds more like a permanently running toilet.

The opening song does not even have the excuse of serving as a prelude to Orsino’s first line, for Gorman makes the common decision to rearrange the first scene so that Viola may open the play rather than Orsino, which entirely alters the framework of the text. True, we are given a song before Viola enters, a country-and-western piece whose link to the play is rather dubious and that sets up the below-stairs world of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew rather than it does Orsino’s court. In the text we have, Shakespeare sets up the world of Illyria – that of the lovesick Duke with a taste for clichéd metaphors – into which Viola erupts, interrupting the natural course of the Petrarchan plot. Reversing the introductions of the characters changes Viola’s role. No longer does the storm rush in to Illyria and alter it: rather, the storm becomes about Viola alone. The play is made into something seen from Viola’s point of view, and she is turned into its main character, something reinforced by Gorman’s decision to give actress Darcy Gerhart a solo bow at the end of the curtain calls.

This is, to my mind, a mistake. As with the rest of Shakespeare’s best comedies, Twelfth Night is almost the exemplar of an ensemble piece. Certainly, the play can no more function without Viola than can the proverbial Hamlet without the prince, but while a weak Hamlet will inevitably doom any production of his play, a weak Viola can be compensated for. Hers is not even the longest role: she has scarcely fifty words more than does Olivia. Viewing Twelfth Night as Viola’s showpiece leaves it as off-kilter as does the single set.

This is not to say that Gerhart does not deserve her applause. Convincingly boyish as Cesario, in a 1950s Tintin sort of way, with a wispy fake moustache whose existence is only revealed (at least from my seat) when Orsino removes it at the end, she is particularly excellent at subtle shifts towards greater masculinity in her performance whenever Viola realises she has just put her disguise at risk. She manages posing as a callow youth rather better than she does the weightier moments of the role, but makes up for this with her comic abilities – her desperate attempts to keep Olivia’s arms away from her chest when being embraced by the latter lady are particularly fine.

As Olivia, Arlin Dixon is rather disappointingly one-note, leaving the character something of a flighty fool. Gorman bucks the trend to view the major key of Twelfth Night as being nostalgia, but sometimes errs too far on playing for laughs. Dixon’s over-the-top passion for Viola is funny, but it’s all there is to her, while it is possible to give the character some depth. The issue of mourning for her brother is almost occluded, despite her gradual shift in costume from black to red. Dixon’s sheer delight at the thought of there being two Cesarios is delicious, but Sebastian’s contention that Olivia cannot be mad because of her ability to order her house seems weak, simply because Olivia does not come across as capable in that regard. (To be fair, considering what does go on in her household over the course of the play, her abilities are generally questionable; but this is taken rather far here.)

Actually running her household, and often running off with the show, is Scott Farley as Malvolio, who provides a funny and complex performance. Both actor and director resist the urge to overplay the role, and though I at times had the distinct sense of having read the same reviews of major productions of the play as Gorman, given some of the choices made, with one exception his culling is excellently integrated into the show. Malvolio’s authoritarianism and self-regard are perfectly blended, and the round of applause Farley received on his exit from the garden scene was exceedingly well-deserved. Avoiding the facile choice to present Malvolio’s desire for Olivia as sexual rather than the textually-accurate desire to climb socially, Farley presents a humorously tortured majordomo whose quasi-hysteria when he believes himself on the verge of seizing his aimed-at end, combined with his attempts to calm himself down, achieves a rare pitch of hilarity. This Malvolio succeeds in one of the more difficult acting tasks – overacting just enough, but not too much. He is perfectly suited to the world of this production. In fact, the only true issue I have with this Malvolio is that of his moustache – or, more precisely, its disappearance. Farley’s face is festooned with a marvelous handlebar moustache that perfectly suits his conception of the character. It is clearly a fake; and while he is locked up, it is lost. Without it, Farley looks much younger, and in fact almost unrecognisable, and what reasoning there is behind this loss – and its reappearance at Feste’s hands at the very end – is invisible to the audience. Perhaps it is meant as a symbol that Malvolio’s gravitas is fake, that his authority is plastered on; but this does not come across. Farley is also to be commended for his brave attempt to deal with asking Sir Toby and company whether they ‘make an alehouse of my lady's house’ when my lady’s house is an alehouse.

Said Sir Toby is played by David Tripp, and his growly, raspy bluster is a highlight of the evening. Again the production proves the value of not overdoing things, and Tripp avoids being too farcical a lush while remaining distinctly disreputable. The constant presence of his cane, later revealed as concealing a sword, also adds to his performance, making his threats of violence quite credible. His relationship with Alison Blair’s Maria is set up from the start and progresses throughout the play, so that the announcement of their wedding at the end is no great surprise. Blair brings a wonderful and nuanced authority to her role, and is extremely credible as the brains behind Malvolio’s gulling. It is perfectly clear that Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are entirely under her thumb.

Sir Andrew Aguecheek is another highlight of the production, thanks to Christopher Manousous. Manousous’s performance manages to make the role seem much bigger than it actually is. As dapper as he is foolish, he shows enough signs of maybe, just maybe having a dim appreciation of his own dimness, and slowly wins over the audience, till a great ‘aww’ of sympathy greets his final exit as he gains a certain dignity in his refusal to show himself crestfallen at being revealed to himself by the man he thought his friend. But mostly he displays a wonderful ability to make a fool of himself and an almost hysterical cowardice that makes his encounter with Cesario one of the great set pieces of the evening, never better than with their mutual agreement to get down from on top of the bar. Sir Andrew not realising that he has to unsheathe his sword is bested only by the moment when he kicks ‘Cesario’ between the legs, only for Viola to take rather a few seconds to realise that she ought to be writhing about in pain.

One advantage I will grant the choice of setting is that it allows Fabian (Leete Stetson) to be given the role of bartender, which means that he is present from the start rather than being a sudden addition to the cast halfway through the play. Stetson makes an able assistant to Sir Toby, wholeheartedly helping in the prank on Malvolio until he starts to think things have gone a little far at the end.

Rounding out this quintet of characters of questionable courteousness is Alexander Offord as Feste, who despite often being inaudible gives a fine performance, displaying his abilities on a variety of stringed instruments including guitar, ukulele, mandolin and banjo. His impersonation of Sir Topaz the curate is especially fine, the alternation between his own voice and the quavering old man’s being another brilliant set piece. He also sings his songs well, though his final song was cut down to a single verse, reinforcing the feeling that the performers were racing against a clock. True, the setting of ‘When that I was and a little tiny boy’ is quite dreadful, so having it finish early is something of a blessing, but giving only one verse leaves it so short there seems little reason for Feste to go to the bother of starting to sing. This is a particularly so given the decision to open the play with a song that’s not in the play. It would be better either to cut it entirely, or to give it in its entirety.

These five work wonderfully together, and rather overshadow the romance plot. In part, this is due to one of the other issues with this production: very few of the actors can speak the verse, with Dixon being a particularly egregious culprit in this regard. As the scenes involving Sir Toby and his companions are in prose, they do not suffer from this, while the characters involved in the Viola/Olivia/Orsino plot are hampered by what sounds like their attempts to speak their lines as if they were prose. This spoils some rather lovely moments of the text, as well as leading to a final scene that left me quite cold due to the sheer rush everybody seems to be in to get things over with. This scene does however have a detail I greatly appreciated, namely the little nod from Luis Lopez’s drunken priest, confirming that he has not only married Sebastian and Olivia that afternoon, but also Sir Toby and Maria.

Sebastian and Antonio, played by Will King and Christopher Legacy respectively, do their best with unrewarding parts. There’s not much to be done with Sebastian, whose role is essentially to be pretty and willing to marry the first strange rich woman who insists that he do so. The two suffer from Gorman’s decision to meld their first two scenes into one, another choice necessitated by the use of a single location. This is one of those moments that reminds us that Shakespeare knew what he was doing: the sheer strength of Antonio’s passion is lost when we do not see him decide to follow Sebastian in spite of all dangers, just as Sebastian’s quest does not come across as being as powerful as it is unless we see him leaving comfort and friendship to pursue it. Beyond that, judging from the growing restlessness around me, mashing the two scenes together makes for one rather long and quite boring scene. In fact, all in all the production does not seem to know what to do with Antonio, and despite Legacy’s best efforts he is little more than a plot device, one whose purpose is not fully clear.

Something similar is at work with the presentation of Orsino (Liam Volke). Again, the use of a single set works against the actor: the whole point of Orsino’s passion is that he never pays court to Olivia in person. In fact, there is no evidence that Orsino has ever even met Olivia. Having him hanging around in her bar leaves one wondering why he has such need of messengers. But beyond this, there is nothing in the production to mark Orsino out from the other characters. Orsino is the Duke of Illyria; but despite the presence of Valentine at his side (Daryan Boys, making the most of his time on stage), there is no sign of power or authority to the Duke here. Looking like nothing more than a hipster-ish graduate student, Orsino is bereaved of power, and entirely alters the dynamic of his relationship to Olivia. As a client of her bar, it gives her more power than he has, which is not the situation at all. In the text, Olivia’s refusal to bow to her liege lord’s desire is a testament to the strength of her lack of interest in romance and of her will. Here, she is simply refusing a customer. The title of the play gives us a clue into its underlying theme: Twelfth Night is a time of (momentary) overthrow of authority. When there is no authority present, it loses its meaning. Though this is clearest in the overthrow of Malvolio, the challenge to authority is not restricted to that plot, but is also an added dimension to the triangle between Duke, Countess, and servant. Lacking any sign of authority, Volke is left merely rather hysterical and somewhat dim, a pompous ass whose views on women are as rebarbative as his taste in sweaters is poor.

Still, despite my reservations, there are many fine things in this production, and the audience is kept well-amused.

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