Sunday, September 23, 2007

Play: XII

Twelfe Night by William Shakespeare, Directed by David Esbjornson, Seattle Rep, through 20 October.

Let me start off by saying the title chosen by Rep for this venerable play is the one from the original folio, when English was as yet a living language and not yet stalked, slain, and mounted on the wall by generations of editors. But it is a pretty pretentious choice, and it opens the door for general questioning of how Shakespeare's language and presentation has evolved to our stage, some 400 years later, which is probably where your don't really want the audience to go with a comedy.

I mean, does Shakespeare belong to the declamatory iambic of the 50's or the more subtle bits of stage business that rock through modern interpretations? Shy of a time machine armed with a video cam, we probably won't know. But by going with alternate spellings, we are reminder that the original folios say things like "If muzick be the foode of loue, play on!" (Insert Ted Baxter punchline of your choice here).

But that's a minor quibble, and Shakespeare gets at most such minor quibbles, so established a creature it is. And Twelfth Night (I'll be modern) hasn't worn well these past 400 years, even as a comedy. The short bit (for those who were sleeping or have confused with other similar plays - Male and female noble twins are separated by shipwreck. Viola is cast ashore in Illyria, where visiting Duke Orsino is courting Countess Olivia, who in mourning the death of her brother.

OK So far? OK, Viola masquerades as a young boy, enters Orsino's service, courts Olivia in his name, Olivia falls for Viola-as-boy, Orsino questions his attraction to Viola-as-boy, whackiness ensues until Viola's twin brother shows up, more whackiness, resolution as Olivia gets Viola's brother, Viola gets Orsino, and exeunt all

So that's the "A" plot, and the primary characters aren't exactly the deepest ponds in the woods, and indeed, mad, sudden passions are part of the entire proceedings. The "B" plot, which attracts a lot more attention from scholars, is that of Malvolio, Olivia's steward, a puritan who disapproves of Olivia's uncle, Toby Belch. Toby, Maria, Olivia's gentlewoman, and a few courtiers cook up a whacky scheme in which Malvolia is convinced that Olivia loves him, and causes him to dress up in bright yellow stockings and put on a skull-like grin. Which, in the fine tradition of Shakespeare's whacky schemes (see: Romeo and Juliet) ends up with Malvolio being confined to a madhouse and humilited.

Interesting thing for the original with Malvolio - This was definitely poking at the more conservative dreariness of John Calvin or John Knox, and Malvolio's last line "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you" is a creepy foretelling of the English Civil War a couple generations after this play. What is jarring in this particular rendition is that the role is played by Frank X, who was last in The Lady from Dubuque last season, and is the only African-American in the cast. As the heavy. Who is reduced to gibbering humiliation. Just a note there.

Also on casting, if you're doing something involving near-identical different-gendered twins, getting an actor and actress that about the same height helps greatly for creating the illusion of confusion needed for the last act. But that's a quibble as well. Christine Marie Brown gets Viola right, making her by turns innocent and worldly. Actually, all the women in this play do well, Cheyenne Casebier goes from mourning in hot for Viola-as-a-boy quickly and believably, and Mari Nelson as the gentlewoman Maria gets it as far as her relationship with Toby Belch - trying to reform him while supporting his pranks.

Charles Leggetts does Sir Toby Belch well with a broad Texas accent that humanizes him, and David Pichette as the fool, Feste, unites the A and B plots and gets to edify. Frank X as Malvolio is fighting an uphill role and does well enough with it, though he's the "Frank Burns" of this particular comedy. You see the affection between the two characters, so their offstage resolution doesn't seem forced.

And let me his something else minor about Malvolio for which you cannot fault the actor. Modern Shakespeare operates in his own fantasy IP, where accents roll around at random, sometimes to good effect, and where costuming is all over the place. One of the courtiers is decked up as Marilyn Manson in a utilikilt. We have 1920's butlers and Maria in a stylish pants suit that looks 1950's. The guards are in Afghani headscarves and Belch could have been the mayor in "The Music Man". Olivio goes from widows weeds to ever-more impressive ballgowns. The problem is, that one of the big visual jokes on the stage is somber, proper Malvolio decked out in brilliant yellow stockings, believing they please the Countess. Problem is, against the costuming explosion, he has to work to make sure people know that THIS is outlandish (as opposed to the others).

Again, its a minor point. The set design is aggressive, creating a rippling wooden deck in the center that rises to an upright that is, by turns, a sinking ship, a house with a window, and part of the forest. That's pretty cool, and creates an illusion of a dynamic stage while only minor props wheeled or lifted into place as required.

Oh, and they move the Fool's song from the end of the play to the opening, and launching into Donovan's "Atlantis" for the setup of the shipwreck. The picking up of the "Love as the Wild Sea" metaphor from the text is nice, but moving the bit lets the air out of the finale, which already has the weird Malvolion promise of a sequel.

All in all? Pretty good, and a solid opening for the Rep's season. Shakespeare is the the touchstone, the playwright used to compare different productions and seasons and actors. Worth checking out, but don't sweat the alternative name-check.

More later,