BWW Review: TWELFTH NIGHT Is Farcical Fun at Prime Stage
There's an old cliche- do people even still say this one anymore?- that posits that the French have no taste in comedy. Despite their country being the Mecca of high art in the Western world, home of the epic novel and the experimental cinema, the French supposedly prefer broad mugging and grotesque clowning over comedies of manners or of situation. Maybe it's true, and maybe it's not, but though director Andy Kirtland has set his Twelfth Night in interwar Portugal, the production's sense of humor is decidedly in the French tradition. And I say that in a good way.
Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is something of a victory lap for the legendary playwright, a late-middle-career remix of plots, archetypes and tropes from elsewhere in his earlier comedies. (It also contains both his only true "crossover" character from another unrelated play, and his only undeniably gay character. Spoiler: they're the same character.) The show is essentially two different shows in one: a high comedy of love and mistaken identity, and a low comedy of pranks and humiliations. These two plots crossover less than you'd expect. In the high comedy, shipwrecked Viola (Carolyn Jerz) disguises herself as a man with her lost twin's clothes and becomes manservant to lovesick nobleman Orsino (John Feightner), only to find herself embroiled in a love triangle with his intended Olivia (Alison Weisgall). In the low comedy, Olivia's prim and proper majordomo Malvolio (Everett Lowe) makes an enemy of his mistress's drunk uncle Sir Toby Belch (Art DeConciliis), only to find himself the target of an increasingly vicious campaign of pranks and deceptions. Tying the two plots together is itinerant entertainer Feste (Dana Babal), who is nominally a court fool but functions more like a minstrel than anything else.
The cast is uniformly excellent, but the greatest burdens fall upon the leading players of the two sections of the show. Bouncing back and forth between the character of supposed-eunuch Cesario and lovesick maiden Viola, Carolyn Jerz is believably both boyish and a clear leading lady; rather than affecting an especially masculine speaking voice or way of moving, she trusts to her own body language and allows the Cesario character to be a little bit on the fey side. In a stroke of brilliant casting, director Andy Kirtland has cast Malcolm MacKenzie, late of The Mousetrap, as Viola's lost twin Sebastian; both MacKenzie and Jerz affect a similarly androgynous onstage presentation and body language, making this one of the few times that a Viola and a Sebastian can actually be confused realistically for each other. ("Watch for her cheekbones," I heard one audience member say to her genuinely befuddled companion.)
Meanwhile, Everettt Lowe's towering, patrician Malvolio is exactly the kind of stuffed-shirt jackass who always receives comeuppance in "snobs versus slobs" comedies from Shakespeare to Caddyshack. Kirtland's production removes much of the Puritan overtones to the character, making him less of a moralizing religious hypocrite and more of a fun-sucking snob, a role Lowe tears into with a sneer and a melodramatic sniff. I must say, playing Malvolio as highbrow smooths out the well-known critique that the war waged against him by the clowns is too cruel; seeing Malvolio as nothing but an arrogant boor, it's easy to laugh, while there has always been an element of acceptable-targets religious persecution to the scene in which Malvolio is tricked into renouncing his faith by a false priest. Whether looking down on his underlings or sniveling like a baby, Lowe maintains a sense of the ridiculous in Malvolio that prevents him from being too tragic even when he is genuinely put upon.
Among the secondary characters, just about everyone is a standout. Much like Lowe's Malvolio was intentionally hard to take seriously, John Feightner's Orsino jettisons the melancholy undertones so common to the character, instead embracing a Toad-of-Toad-Hall narcissism and bluster. Feightner's Orsino (and Feightner himself) is clearly having the time of his life pining and languishing over Olivia, loving every moment of his self-absorbed angst. When he lip-syncs along to Dana Babal's Feste, it's an inspired moment of physical comedy, Feightner growing more and more impassioned until the show becomes all about him, not Babal. As Olivia, Alison Weisgall makes the perfect foil for Feightner, dry where he is bubbly, arch where he is blunt. This only makes her increasing infatuation with Cesario funnier and funnier, giving both MacKenzie and Weisgall opportunity for some fantastic slow-burn takes and too-good-to-be-true reactions when she confuses one twin for the other and takes a stranger to bed and to wed within moments of meeting him.
But if the play's goofy comic vision has a secret weapon, it's Matt Henderson as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a brainless aristocrat with more money than sense or taste. As if channeling Paul Lynde or Charles Nelson Reilly at their seventies best, Henderson camps it up unapologetically in the part, all preening coos and swanning entrances. Though ostensibly a suitor of Viola himself, Sir Andrew pays her very little attention or expresses little desire in the script; Kirtland's production has given the character flamboyant clothes and a series of highly effeminate gestures, strongly implying that this was to be a marriage of convenience anyway. BUT. Big BUT, and this would be spoilers if the play had much more in the way of plot. BUT, when Sir Andrew is slighted in the least, by just about anyone, the midcentury mama's-boy affectations are immediately replaced by a pro wrestler's growl and a swaggering alpha-male strut. Seeing Henderson spin on a dime back and forth between these two attitudes in the second act's fight scenes is worth at least twice the price of admission- it's a clowning transformation Jerry Lewis would have been jealous of.
One could argue that this production's perpetually upbeat, fast-paced tone robs the play of its melancholic undertones; many of the more contemplative moments are brushed past or played for comedy, and Feste's sorrowful songs, set by Monica Stephenson and Gil Teixeira to music for solo guitar and voice, are more poolside cool than sentimental. But with the show clocking in at a speedy two hours and change, and so much farcical plot to unfold, a less contemplative Twelfth Night isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's amazing how Shakespeare's language, so painstakingly crafted on the printed page, begins to sound effortless and fluid when spoken, and to sound downright modern when delivered at the frenetic pace of screwball comedy. While some purists might balk at the idea of Twelfth Night as full-on farce rather than pastoral romance, Andy Kirtland has given the show perspective, drive and a delightfully un-modern sense of vaudeville humor. Add to that a handful of truly Great Performances and a little acoustic music, and you've got the perfect early-summer show.