It’s a disk, or a lens, or giant kaleidoscope, thirty feet high and thirty feet wide. Or a big round stained-glass window, maybe, slanted like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. A few of the pieces of glass at the bottom have been stolen, or they melted, or somebody licked them and licked them until they dissolved, perhaps a child. Whatever it is, it holds your attention because it takes up half the stage, and because it looks like it might fall, and because you wonder what it means, and what it’s for, and what might happen to it.
The answer to all of those questions is nothing: it gets half the stage because it’s beautiful, and because it makes you wonder.
“The extraordinary design team has created a world where fantasy and reality collide,” writes Robert Richmond, who conceived and directed the version of Twelfth Night on stage now at Folger Theatre. The words in this production come from William Shakespeare, but the wonder comes from Richmond and designers Mariah Hale (costumes), Casey Kaleba, (Fight Director), Eleni Grove (choreography), and Helen Hayes Award winners Andrew Griffin (lighting), Matthew M. Nielson (sound), and Tony Cisek (scenic design), who gives half the stage to that enormous leaning circle and the other half to a curving stairway that leads to no place anybody needs to go.
Beauty and wonder in service of nothing, with no clear relationship to anything that happens in the play.
Here’s what happens:
The first scene takes place behind a gauzy curtain: a boy and girl are dressing each other playfully, lovingly, in identical outfits. They move like lovers, though you guess that they’re supposed to be twins. They help each other into trousers, waistcoats, ties, and jackets, then an old-time photographer comes down the aisle and takes their picture, with one of those old-time exploding flashes. The lover-siblings mug for the camera, then join passengers boarding a ship — which sets sail and then sinks in a swirl of spinning purple cloth.
The curtain stays closed and nobody speaks because Shakespeare didn’t write that scene: Richmond did. Shakespeare’s script begins when the heart-sick Duke Orsino speaks a famous line: “If music be the food of love,” Orsino says, “play on. Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken and die.”
Which makes you think that either Orsino doesn’t understand love, or he’s been listening to lousy music.
Orsino wants Olivia to love him, but she won’t let him come over because she’s in mourning, so he sends Cesario to make the case that Olivia should really give Orsino a chance, because he’s kind of hot, but not as hot as Cesario in Olivia’s opinion, which is a problem because Cesario is really Viola, one of the twins we saw behind the curtain — the sister — who Olivia’s not supposed to be in love with in that day because they’re both women, even though Antonio, a sailor who saved the life of Viola’s brother, makes no bones about being in love with him — the brother — who’s tickled pink to hook up with Olivia when she mistakes him for the sister she thinks is a man because they’re dressed alike. Et cetera.
The play, in other words, is not as interesting as that big round thing Tony Cisek made and left on stage. The play in fact is little more than a chance for a kick-ass group of actors to get down and cut it loose.
Craig Wallace (Sir Toby Belch) makes having fun seem like a noble calling. He’s big and brash and bold in ways that make you hope he’ll choose you as a friend. Tonya Beckman as the chambermaid Maria makes the life of unimportant people seem deluxe and sexy. James Konicek (Sir Andrew Aguecheek) provides a hilarious be-knickered counterpoint to Sir Toby’s charisma.
The real star turns belong to Richard Sheridan Willis, who plays Malvolio, the servant charged with keeping this rambunctious band in check, and Louis Butelli, who plays Feste, the local fool — which is to say the local source of common sense and wisdom who somehow makes Shakespeare’s language sound like conventional American English, even when the syntax is distorted and the vocabulary is obscure.
The most important minor character, however, is Joshua Morgan’s Valentine, the piano player. “Music,” Richmond writes, “… has given us a springboard to dive into the emotional depths of this play and allow this multi-talented cast an opportunity to sing, dance, and play musical instruments in the true nature of an ensemble.” The piano Morgan plays is the only object on the stage that has a practical purpose.
Richmond says that after pondering the play’s subtitle, which is ‘What you Will,’ he decided that “in this love-seeking, love-needing world, it might be better thought of as ‘What you Wish.’”
What Richmond wishes for, apparently, is a sort of pleasure dome where music and people and beautiful objects compensate for the shipwrecks that all of us have to endure. If that kind of wishing is the food of love, Mr. Richmond, play on.
Can I come back tomorrow night?
Running time: Two hours and forty-five minutes, with one intermission.
Twelfth Night plays through June 9. 2013 at Folger Theatre -201 East Capitol Street, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 544-7077, or order them online.