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Theatre in Review: Twelfth Night, or What You Will (Fiasco Theater/Classic Stage Company)

Andy Grotelueschen, Paco Tolson, David Samuel. Photo: Joan Marcus

I have a question for the members of Fiasco Theater and their directors, Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld: Where's the fire? After a charming opening, featuring a beguilingly sung sea chantey -- the play begins with a shipwreck, after all -- everyone in this Twelfth Night is hell-bent on getting through the text as expeditiously as possible, with plot, character, and some of the greatest dramatic verse ever written all confined to a very crowded back seat. I know we live in the age of high-speed data delivery, but can't a few minutes be spared to savor Shakespeare's words? If not, what is the point?

A fascinatingly unstable compound of high comedy, low farce, and a surpassing melancholy, Twelfth Night is, even for Shakespeare, a remarkably rich work, so much so that it can be spun in any number of directions. Brody, Steinfeld and their cast have chosen the overland route, skating across the words so lightly that the actors barely seem to connect with their characters. The play is filled with masks and disguises, self-deception and sudden, stabbing moments of self-realization; unless the actors are willing to play these, there is nothing for an audience to hang on to.

For example, Viola, our heroine, having been separated from her twin brother and cloaking herself in male disguise, is taken up by Orsino, who sends her off to plead his romantic case with Olivia, the ulterior, overly dramatic object of his affection. Having lost her father and brother in short order, Olivia has genuine reason for mourning, but she has turned her sorrow into performance art, shutting herself off from the world and finding fresh reason for tears with practically every breath. Viola, who secretly carries a torch for Orsino, skillfully (if reluctantly) makes his case to Olivia, only to realize, to her horror, that Olivia is falling for her. The speech in which Viola puzzles this out climaxes with her stunned admission, "I am the man!" -- and, in the hands of the right actress, it is both hilarious and touching. In Emily Young's brisk delivery, however, there's little or no understanding of the tangle into which Viola has fallen. It's the moment when we should fall for her, too, but, since nobody has time for such follies, our love affair is quickly curtailed.

If the play's romances have little fizz, its rambunctious comedy is also lacking. The role of the roistering, boozing Sir Toby Belch -- Olivia's relative and a permanent thorn in her side -- is second only to Falstaff in Shakespeare's gallery of comic grotesques, but in Andy Grotelueschen's hands there's no savor in his sinning, no eloquence in his self-deception; he is reduced to a noisy boor. There's the germ of a comic idea in Paco Tolson's Sir Andrew Aguecheek, his essential cluelessness initially masked by a suavely Continental manner right out of a '40s film, but it isn't developed enough to pay off. The scene in which Viola and Andrew take part in a duel -- into which both have been maneuvered and which neither wants -- doesn't pay off, a surprising outcome for a sure-fire comic setup. Tina Chilip's bossy, charmless Maria is seemingly unacquainted with her character's gift for irony.

The biggest disappointment is Paul L. Coffey's Malvolio, who is not the vain, pompous striver of the text, but a mildly officious maître d' who poses no real threat to Toby and the others. For the play's second half to work, Malvolio should be an irritant, a gasbag just waiting for the pinprick that will bring him back down to earth. The scenes in which he is gulled into believing that Olivia yearns for him, and his attempts at wooing her with outrageous dress and manners, are among the funniest in the Shakespearean canon; here they are among the most glaring aspects of what may be the least amusing Twelfth Night I've ever seen.

Never a bore and never vulgar or pandering, this Twelfth Night has moments when the text blessedly asserts itself. Steinfeld's Feste, the clown, has an appealing gravity, and his delivery of the song "O Mistress Mine" and the finale ("For the rain it raineth every day") are given attractively moody folk arrangements. If Jessie Austrian's Olivia and Brody's Orsino are rough sketches for fuller characterizations, at least they have the right idea. I also liked David Samuel as Antonio, the sailor who gets into all sorts of trouble because he can't distinguish between Viola and Sebastian (Javier Ignacio), her twin.

There's also something likable about the overall no-frills approach, including John Doyle's extremely spare set, which is reshaped fluently by Ben Stanton's lighting. Emily Rebholz's contemporary costumes add to the production's sleek feel. But why strip down a production if you aren't going to highlight Shakespeare's words and characters? I've seen some great Twelfth Nights and some very bad ones -- but I don't think I've ever seen one so thoroughly lacking in point of view and reason for being. After two-and-a-half hours, I still have no idea of what they will. -- David Barbour


(19 December 2017)

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