Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A belated Christmas present from Trinity Rep

Some have greatness thrust upon'em in Twelfth Night.

For those reeling from the recent pseudo-Shakespearean atrocities at the A.R.T., or discomfited by the 6-actors-in-36-roles stylings of the Actors' Shakespeare Project, Trinity Rep's Twelfth Night should come as a welcome - and bemusing - balm. With a shockingly low actor-to-role ratio (of approximately 1:1, if you don't count Viola, who does double duty as Sebastian), an honest-to-God set, and (ka-razy, I know!), most, if not quite all, of the text, this Twelfth Night represents a return to something like recognizable Shakespeare.

And at least in its comic interludes, it's also a remarkably rich account of the play, probably the best Bard we've seen in these parts for some time. Director Brian McEleney's approach is refreshingly free of academic or political dogma, and perhaps because he has played Malvolio himself a few times (as he does here), there's a level of comic invention in his scenes and the schemings of his tormentors that may be broad, but is also most wonderful. Alas, things thin out a bit elsewhere, and the play's complex, melancholy music isn't always heard where it should be. But even if this Twelfth Night doesn't represent an artistic epiphany, it nevertheless demonstrates that there are more things in heavenly verse than are dreamt of in Diane Paulus's philosophy.

It's also nice to see that Providence is a bit ahead of the Boston curve when it comes to casting: there's a mix of ethnicities in the Trinity company, and thus in the cast of Twelfth Night, that doesn't even figure as a statement; it's just the way things are, and should be. Amusingly enough, the one bit of political correctness that I'm actually grateful has attached itself to Twelfth Night - the openness to a romantic relationship between Antonio and Sebastian (at least on Antonio's side!) - was, however, also missing. But you can't have everything!

What I missed far more was a truly poetic, interior dimension to newcomer Cherie Corinne Rice's Viola (she was actually at her best doing brisk, brusque double duty as twin brother Sebastian). Rice did capture some touching moments of melancholy here and there, but she was perhaps somewhat circumscribed by two problematic performances surrounding her: Annie Worden's Olivia was oddly haughty and more sex-starved than grief-stricken, and Joe Wilson, Jr. was morosely elegant as Orsino but also somewhat forced. Thus little romantic atmosphere was conjured by the twists of their various encounters, and the play's deep probing of identity (this is a play about self-love, after all) never even surfaced. Perhaps as a result, Stephen Berenson's rather blank Feste seemed to be talking only to himself, and McEleney's Malvolio was left hanging high and dry once he was declared mad, for the character's final imprisonment, lost in a series of false selves, should strike us as a variant on the romantic delusions that have come before. With Shakespeare, at his greatest, everything is connected, and as Twelfth Night represents the fullest flowering of a certain mode of his comedy (before he plunged into "the problem plays"), much is lost when the subtler facets of the piece are ignored.

But to tell true, this was all easy to forgive once we were swept up in the warm humanity of this production's strongest scenes (Malvolio's gulling and Viola's duel). Here Trinity mainstays Fred Sullivan, Jr. (as Toby Belch), Stephen Thorne (as Sir Andrew) and Mauro Hantman (as Fabian, with Sullivan, McEleny, and Anne Scurria, above) were at their deliciously hammy best, and line after line (even some lines that actually aren't in the play) popped with specificity and wit. Meanwhile McEleney's Malvolio, though snootily malicious, somehow hung onto our sympathy, and Rice blossomed as a physical comedienne when given the chance (her duel with Aguecheek was the best I've ever seen). In a word, this is how Shakespearean comedy is done, folks.

I had a few quibbles elsewhere. The show is clearly set on the literal "Twelfth Night," the end of the Christmas season - and perhaps therefore the music was largely transcribed onto various carols, some of which worked ("The Twelve Days of Christmas" cleverly corralled the audience into the revelry), and some of which didn't (the melody of "Auld Lang Syne" made for too sentimental an ending). But even when I didn't agree with the production's choices, it was still delightful to see music featured so prominently in a production of Shakespeare (even if Feste wasn't a gifted warbler). And Eugene Lee's striking set - a decrepit country house at holiday-time, into which the elements literally poured - was subtly detailed and offered ample opportunity for pratfalls. All in all, this production should make Shakespeare fans feel like kids on Christmas morning.

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