nytheatre.com review by David Hilder
March 17, 2007
[Editor's Note: A detailed synopsis of Twelfth Night is here.]
Dingy cloths draped over grey wardrobes; chests of drawers askew; mirrors smudged with dirt and time. These are the opening images of Propeller's Twelfth Night, and they're complemented aurally by a series of minor chords sounded by mens' voices and a haunting violin played by Feste (Tony Bell). This is a production built on the cornerstone of melancholy, reflected in the black, white, and grey costume design and the moody lighting of Michael Pavelka and Ben Ormerod, respectively (Pavelka also did the sets). And when you consider the opening strokes of the play itself—a Duke pining in deep, unrequited love; the object of his affections aggrieved at the recent death of her brother; and a shipwreck which separates another set of siblings, twin brother and sister, each of whom surmises the other has died at sea—this approach makes a certain sense.
Propeller, for those unfamiliar with the company, is an English troupe led by Edward Hall (son of the director Sir Peter Hall) that employs only male actors in athletic, vigorous productions of Shakespeare. The company fares exceedingly well at speaking the play's rich, evocative language with apparent ease, skill, and dexterity. And Hall stages the play beautifully in Pavelka's seemingly haunted space. When the actors are not essaying their primary roles, they often don white domino masks and observe the play being played. Gorgeous to look at, the production is handsome and often involving. What seems to be missing here is the other side of the melancholic coin; the play's comedy rarely takes flight, despite the truly fabulous work of Jason Baughan as Sir Toby Belch, Olivia's uncle.
Clad in a bright red jacket (one of the design's very few dashes of color), braying at the top of his powerful lungs, Baughan's Sir Toby is a satyr, a creature of pleasure who finds satisfaction only in excess. Partnered in crime with Olivia's gentlewoman Maria (a terrific, grounded Chris Myles) and the weak-brained Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Simon Scardifield), Sir Toby is a life force. But his battle to conquer darkness is unwinnable here. Ultimately, the production's point seems to be that despite some happiness at the end, that joy is profoundly circumscribed.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the way Malvolio (Bob Barrett) is treated. A pompous prig who thinks himself much above his station (he is Olivia's steward), Malvolio is not merely unthinkably stiff, but actively offensive to his social betters in the household. And so Sir Toby and his cohorts set about to fool Malvolio into believing Olivia loves him via a conveniently dropped note Maria has written; when Malvolio takes the bait, appearing in "yellow stockings, cross-gartered" (a second splash of color) per the letter's instructions and smiling like a ferocious mountain lion, the hoodlums swiftly have him locked away in a dark cell for his apparent madness. The Malvolio story line is tricky, because what Sir Toby, Maria, Sir Andrew and Feste do to him is far worse than any crime he has committed, at least to our contemporary senses. Hall and company do not shy away from the tragedy of Malvolio's undoing. When Olivia learns that Maria wrote the letter, and that she and Sir Toby are the authors of Malvolio's undoing, all it takes is the news that the two of them have wed for all to be forgiven. It's a chilling choice, and Malvolio is left truly bereft by it.
It should come as no surprise that the most effective scenes in the play involve the disconsolate Viola (Tam Williams), who wears the production's third spot of color, a small pink flower in her hair, until she chooses to pass for a young man to serve Duke Orsino (Jack Tarlton as he who yearns for Olivia's love) in her newfound home of Illyria, where the shipwreck has tossed her. Williams is remarkable as a young woman who goes from having lost her dear brother to having to wear a disguise, cutting her off further from everything she has known. When Cesario (Viola's name while in Orsino's service) must comfort "his" weeping master, while also being unable to utter the truth about both her identity and her love for Orsino, it's truly, staggeringly heartbreaking. Likewise, when Orsino learns who Viola is, and claims her as his bride, the beauty of the moment cannot be denied. And Williams's delivery of the famed "willow cabin" speech is a model of economy, simplicity and grace.
How much an audience member will enjoy this Twelfth Night depends largely, I suppose, on his or her taste for the ruminative over the buoyant. While I found myself respecting the production a great deal, I also felt held at arm's length. These players seemed to be asking me to think before I laughed. A laudable goal, perhaps; still, I personally wished the party had not been quite so completely over.