There are laughs in this production of Twelfth Night, but the romantic payoffs are scarce, perhaps because the sit-com rhythms tend to swamp all else (including some of the poetry).
Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Steven Maler. Staged by the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company on the Boston Common, through August 10.
By Bill Marx
“O Time, thou must untangle this, not I;/It is too hard a knot for me t’ untie,” opines Viola at one point in Twelfth Night, and it is that spirit of resignation before the whims of larger forces that tends to be overlooked in standard productions of this popular romantic comedy. Despite all of its marvelous gusto and humor, there’s a dark side in this play, a pervasive sense that, as Olivia suggests at one point, we do not know ourselves. The Bard’s mingled yarn has plenty of knots in it this time around — the great tragedies are on their way.
The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production irons most of these bumps out, or just decides to race over them in a fast-paced approach that works best with the script’s farce, which is in the capable hands of Fred Sullivan Jr. as a nicely prissy Malvolio (his giant cross-gartered codpiece is a scene stealer), Robert Pemberton’s blunt and bullying alcoholic of a Sir Toby Belch, and Remo Airaldi, whose Feste is memorably testy though not particularly melancholic or deep. (Ironically, Marianna Bassham’s Viola comes off as the unhappier of the pair.) The trio’s comic characterizations are cartoonish, but zesty.
The other zanies are less compelling. Sheree Galpert’s Maria strikes me as a bit too secretarial/maternal as the mischief-making Maria, and Conner Christiansen’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek is a monomaniacally foppish buffoon — when the character announces that he was loved once there should be a fleeting note of pathos. It is one of those moments in which Shakespeare gives even a clod-head like Aguecheek an intimation of humanity. Here that line, like so many other moments that spin counter to the script’s high spirits, are cast aside. Still, when Sullivan’s Malvolio marches off the stage (after kissing Olivia on the cheek!?), swearing that he will be avenged, there is no laughter — which is as it should be. There’s sadism in Belch and company’s treatment of Malvolio, and flickers of it elsewhere in the play. This is a society that gets off on making others feel painfully unrequited.
The laughs are generally here, but the romantic payoffs are scarce, perhaps because the sit-com rhythms tend to swamp all else (including some of the poetry) in director Steven Maler’s effort to make the evening a vibrant romp, cued visually by the eye-popping swirl of colors that make up the backdrop. Sadness, longing, and wonder don’t stand much of a chance when there’s an orange plastic elk on hand to punch up the proceedings. The elk is an acceptable prop in the hallowed ‘rubber chicken’ tradition, but the choreographed opening of the ship floundering doesn’t really do much except provide some unnecessary bustling around. The use of bar-be-que utensils rather than swords — Belch’s smoker doubles as a bar — is another sign that some of the sharper elements in this play have been removed for the sake of zippy mass consumption. The final revelation — that Viola’s double, her brother Sebastian, is safe and sound — is treated with a weird matter-of-factness, essentially an perfunctory pause before the next punch line.
As Viola, Bassham isn’t so much playful as dutiful in her dealings with others — she doesn’t seem to be having much fun during her battle-of-wits with Olivia, and her growing feelings of love for Orsino feel strained. (This reserved performance makes me curious about Bassham’s take on Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, scheduled for Rhode Island’s Gamm Theatre this fall.) It is not hard to understand her reluctance at being called on to fall for her obsessed ruler — Robert Najarian’s Orsino is uninteresting and stiff (he seems more bitter than lovesick), though he certainly suggests the nasty side of the character. Kerry O’Malley’s Olivia snaps out of mourning very easily; when she is smitten with Sebastian she becomes a figure of silly fun, their clinches more parodic than erotic.
So this is a pleasant Twelfth Night, amusing but determinedly superficial. The final tune from Feste poses a problem for this lite approach because it is a bit of a downer. Maler deals with this obstacle by having figures with umbrellas stroll on stage to face “the rain it raineth everyday” — which arrives in the form of festive, colored pieces of paper falling from the skies. I don’t think Feste or Shakespeare were thinking about confetti — a hard rain is coming, despite the final fade out on the contented coupling. Twelfth Night tells us that as it merrily goes along its way, if you care to listen.
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.