nytheatre.com review by Lauren Marks
June 23, 2005
Aquila Theatre Company takes on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in this new production at Baruch Performing Arts Center. Aquila uses a technique they dub “theatrical utilitarianism” to bring Shakespeare revivals and adaptations to contemporary audiences, in hopes of creating “a production of truth and honesty… preventive of artifice and pretension.” For example, their production a few years ago of Much Ado About Nothing relocated the tale to London during the 1960s. They do not take such adaptive liberties with this production, which leans towards a more traditional, recognizably Shakespearean play, complete with Elizabethan attire and painted backdrop.
The story of Twelfth Night is basically this: A brother and sister, twins, are separated during a shipwreck and each believes the other to be dead. Viola, the sister, finding herself in a strange land, chooses to disguise herself as a man and puts herself in service of the town’s Duke, Orsino. Orsino has long been pursuing the Lady Olivia, but the love is quite unrequited. Orsino begins to make use of his unusually lovely page to woo the lady on his behalf. Lady is wooed, but mistakenly turns her affection to the page, Viola in drag as Cesario. And Viola cannot love the lady, if for no better reason than she has fallen deeply for her master. Matters get more complicated when Sebastian, Viola’s remarkably un-drowned brother, makes an appearance in the town, with his lackey Antonio, and mistaken identities abound—as do further misplaced affections.
Shakespeare usually treats his jokers with a certain gravity, but Feste, the fool of Twelfth Night, may be easily overlooked, and often is, in production. Here though, he appears to the audience as a sort of narrator, and remains the most visible character from beginning to end. Though played exceptionally by Louis Butelli, the fool is perhaps given too much responsibility, forced into the role of a sort of director in an often directionless play. There are almost too many textual loose ends to treat the play with kind of gravitas this superb fool gives it, especially in the moments of song which punctuate the play.
“Theatrical Utility” seems a tricky business, especially with such a frivolous comedy. What, if anything, is utilitarian about it? Aquila does an effective job of making the script understandable, without losing the comedy; but they insist a bit hard towards an overall meaning—which feels artificial and forced. Sense is not really required for this comedy, and the play is best when Aquila ignores it instead of pushing for it. It is more fun when it’s just a comedy; the shameless milking of each of the sexually referential jokes and the sight gags are definitely high points. A particularly funny one involves three stooges spying and attempting to hide behind some ridiculously ineffective, and festive, cover.
Music is prominently featured, with archaic instruments such as the lute and harpsichord alongside, and occasionally mixed in with, electronic drum and bass. This highlights, with a strange grace, other aspects of the design, especially swinging Elizabethan skirts and the perspective in the glowing backdrop of the town. Sometimes the music feels heavy-handed, not always effectively informing the world of the play, but it does keep the energy of the show lively.
Some excellent performances may be the best reason to see this Twelfth Night. Malvolio is superbly rendered by Kenn Sabberton, treating himself with utmost sincerity, even in the most ridiculous situation. Lisa Carter is an enormously accessible Olivia. And Olivia’s drunken cousin (Anthony Cochrane) and suitor (Lincoln Hudson) are extremely funny, as well as good comedic counterparts, especially when aligned with the fool.
However,Viola/Cesario, played by Lindsay Rae Taylor, is problematic—the character is required to be believably male, but irresistible as a female, and in this production the difficulty is not dealt with effectively. Taylor is believable as man, a kind of Alex P. Keaton/Michael J. Fox of the Elizabethan era, but still nowhere near as handsome or charming as Orsino, the Count whom Olivia persists in rejecting. And as a woman, she just doesn’t stand out as much as a leading lady ought.
Audiences who are unfamiliar with Shakespeare will find themselves in good hands with Aquila. As a company, they bring together British and American artists, fusing diverse style and training in the actors, which creates something that stays pretty coherent, and keep most of the text from ever becoming dense. Twelfth Night is an especially good vehicle for Aquila’s uses, since it’s not too dense to begin with. Whether the production is “preventive of artifice and pretension” is debatable, but the play is easy to follow, and most often enjoyable.
With strong performances, and a good overall energy, Twelfth Night should not disappoint those who are familiar with Aquila already, and is likely to pleasantly surprise those who aren’t.