nytheatre.com review by Megin Jimenez
January 29, 2009
Shakespeare's Twelfth Night takes its title from the last hurrah of winter revelry, the twelfth night of the Christmas season. A holdover from pagan feasts, the merrymaking is an opportunity to turn the usual order upside down: servants reign as royalty, gender bends, disorder rules. The tone set, Shakespeare pushes the conventions of the comedy (mistaken identities, the revealing letter, the tidy ending) to an absurd extreme. In the course of the play, we must accept that a brother and sister can be unequivocally mistaken for each other by sworn enemy and impassioned lover alike (she albeit dressed as a man), while in the space of a few minutes, the leader of the land falls madly for his loyal servant upon discovering "he" is a noble she. The Pearl Theatre Company's production, directed by J.R. Sullivan, lustily takes up the madcap spirit, with riffs of physical comedy, music, and bits of song, among other embellishments. While at times risking disingenuousness, the additions illuminate relationships and motivations, and the cast remains cleanly engaged with the language.
Shipwrecked on a strange land and separated from her twin brother, our heroine Viola poses as an inexperienced young man in order to serve under the Duke Orsino. Soon becoming a trusted servant, she is enlisted to help the Duke woo the rich countess Olivia, who instead falls for the maiden in disguise. Countess Olivia's court is also the home of Malvolio, the ostensible villain of the show, a buzz-kill Puritan who constantly spoils the fun for Olivia's carousing uncle, Sir Toby Belch, and his buddies. The household's revenge on Malvolio, a prank that exploits his puffed-up self-regard, commands as much stage time as the misadventures of aristocratic love.
Dominic Cuskern's Malvolio is a delightful prig, his foolishness hitting just the right notes with a wonderfully modulated voice. Sean McNall also stands out as a sublime Fool at Olivia's court. Elegantly wending his way through complex linguistic figures, he delivers the rare treat of seeing the man behind the Fool's mask. While showing the requisite spirit for wit on command, he also communicates a subtle sense that the Fool has his own opinions about the assorted flights of fancy—even, at times, a twinge of doubt. Liz Covey's notable costume design takes up the same sort of "just go with it" (or, "what you will") spirit of the play, with success. Though eclectic, the choices are not arbitrary. The aim is not to re-contextualize the work in another time period, rather the characters become images from dream logic where all manner of references are possible, and somehow fit. The blustering Sir Toby, for example, is in a safari outfit, paunchy and colonial, while his dopey companion Sir Andrew looks a kind of American Southern dandy in bow-tie.
The question, "What are you?" echoes throughout, as the characters try to disentangle the folly, and one might ask the same of the production. A sudden turn comes with Malvolio's torment at the hands of Sir Toby—Cuskern's heartbreaking portrayal is a startling anomaly of real suffering. Beside this, "love," that magic ingredient for chaos, degrades to a stand-in for what we suspect are lesser sentiments in the other characters, and we suddenly feel complicit for having laughed at all. While I sat up with the sudden electricity of it, there remains a question of the coherence, or else the intention, of the moment, given the preceding lighthearted, exaggerated staging.
It's a long winter yet, and it's high time for comedy. On the whole, The Pearl's substantial, committed production fits the bill.