nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
November 7, 2006
[Editor's Note: For a detailed synopsis of Twelfth Night, click here.]
To see the Chekhov International Theatre Festival production of Twelfth Night in Russian and all male is to experience the story of the play without any bardolatry blocking the enchantment. This version reveals the magic of Shakespeare's text in a completely unexpected way. Being entirely in Russian makes it impossible for most Americans to focus too closely on the verse or its delivery. Instead the very sounds of the language work in place of words to convey the story's meaning and emotion. Along with a marvelous, lively score by Vladimir Pankov and Alexander Gusev, and the spare but effective staging of Declan Donnellan, the voices create much of the play. This extraordinary ensemble of Russian actors embodies an iconic and arresting interpretation, full of skill and fascination. However, unless a person speaks Russian, this is not a production for one unfamiliar with the story or who is not willing to work with the production to find the richness of it. But, if you will, there are many riches to be found in this Twelfth Night.
It begins with the actors as actors entering the immense bare, bright stage of the Harvey Theater. Like many Cheek by Jowl productions, for whom Donnellan also directs, the piece begins with the cast speaking a key phrase to the audience. Starkly costumed in black, they utter the phrase "my father" in various overlapping calls that become an invocation for the play to begin. As the actors set up the story through snippets of text chosen from throughout the play, they do so in a manner that allows them to designate actors as characters simultaneously. This start is both charming and very clear. It would have been helpful if the rest of Act 1, when the audience is working to stay on top of which actor is which character, were as easy to follow; but much of the staging has more to do with relationship tensions than physicalized storytelling. Too often it takes a moment to get your bearings with what is going on and the awkwardly placed, physically unpleasant-to-read captions above the stage are no help. Yet despite this, what is comprehensible within the first act is also marvelous. Especially the late night partying of Sir Toby Belch (Alexander Feklistov), Feste (Igor Yasulovich), and Andrew Aguecheek (Dmitry Dyushev), played as a truly believable late night of drinkers hanging out, not the actor-heartiness of ye olde revel. It was the first time in which the status difference between Maria and Sir Toby Belch was profound and real to me. The sometimes tender, sometimes vicious elements in a relationship between two people who are fundamentally unequal came out vividly, and that humanity was incredibly affecting.
Within Twelfth Night two siblings are separately cast upon a shore after a shipwreck and find that the tempests of love are as powerful as the one which wrecked their ship. The story centers on the female sibling Viola, who goes in disguise as a young boy for her own personal safety. In this production the women are played by men, not always realistically but in an archetypal way that communicates without condescension a female experience. As Olivia (played with great delicacy by Alexey Dadonov) grieves for her brother, it seems more an obvious device to fend off the amorous Duke Orsino (acted by the charming Vladimir Vdovichenkov), and her then falling in love so quickly with the disguised Viola seems less fickle. A difficult line is run by Andrey Kuzichev's Viola, who is so believably male in the scenes with Olivia that it can be a bit confusing, but the maleness restores the sense of it being between a man and woman, and the humor is not confined to the standard fixation on it being two women "really." The Olivia-Viola scenes have a freshness that is frequently missing and help make Sergey Mukhin's Sebastian more believable as well. Viola and Sebastian truly look alike not just in coloring but in build and energy, and Olivia seems less of a fool in mistaking one for the other.
All of the actors are truly vested in their characters and have a reaction to everything going on about them. The actor-character connections are so strong that even where I did not comprehend what was going on, I knew that there was something happening and wanted to get inside of it again. It felt less like pointless frustration and more like confused fascination—a bit more like the start of love.
At the end of a stronger, livelier second act there is a feeling of great pride on both sides of the theater space, as if the cast knows they have done something extraordinary and living, that their failing and succeeding in this piece—with its commitment and frailties—has much to give to the imagination. They are in our ears and we are in their hands and with both sides working receptively, this Twelfth Night, or What You Will, is a holiday moment with echoing resonation.