‘Twelfth Night’ at Theatre Prometheus

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Aaaah….Shakespeare. We Washingtonians love you! We love you so much that we have your library here! And we have 14 theater companies dedicated to your works! We, as an educated and civil town, love our high brow theatre! But, as a new and progressive theater town, we also love our down-and-dirty, nitty-gritty, sex-joke-lobbing Bard from Avon.

Frank Mancino (Sir Toby), Richard Fiske (Malvolio), Yen Nguyen (Sir Andrew), and Eric Porter (Fabian). Photo by Joshua McKerrow.

Frank Mancino (Sir Toby), Richard Fiske (Malvolio), Yen Nguyen (Sir Andrew), and Eric Porter (Fabian). Photo by Joshua McKerrow.

In this production of Twelfth Night, presented by the fledgling company Theatre Prometheus, you get a bit of both. However, you also get a lot of freshman mistakes, and a lot of mugging…oh…so much mugging (if you look at the etymology of that word you see roots in both “violent attack” and “making faces” {and the audience was the target of a violent facial attack at several number of points this evening.)

Prometheus is dedicated to “nurturing the fire” of new artists (a noble goal),and I would like to help in that regard by offering up a few tidbits of insight that I gleaned from tonight’s show.

1) Commitment to character is essential. Sir Andrew (played by Yen Nguyen) would, line to line, shift from exceptionally drunk and falling over himself, to perfectly sober, and back again, with no apparent reason.

2) Excitement is different that talking very fast. Richard Fiske, playing Malvolio, managed to get out at least a full page of monologue in one breath, which is impressive. He also managed to mumble half the words leaving any interpretation in his dust (his choice of a stone faced, emotionless bureaucrat was a strong one, but would have been stronger had he actually freed himself from his emotional constraints during this monologue).

3) Valentine (Lauren Patton): Delivering lines in an absolute monotone, without any visible or audible emotion behind them is a strong choice (though, one that is typically avoided by the more seasoned actors).

4) And, choices. Just make some choices. Delivering lines vaguely to the ether is massively soporific. Caitlin Partridge, who played Viola (the lead), used exactly the same body language and gestures in every scene (in many cases, every other line), and seemed to be delivering her lines, in most cases, to an invisible figure seated about halfway up the stage left wall.

And, let us take a moment to address the direction, as created by Tracey Erbacher. As I mentioned before, this play seems to have two minds about itself: That it is a work of high art, and that it is a sitcom. Both are totally legitimate ways to play Shakespeare (his works are based heavily in comedia (which every sitcom ever written is a direct descendant of). So it becomes an issue of choice.

Playing the “high art” and allowing the characters to be wholeheartedly invested in the seeming tragedies of their situations creates a comedy based on our vouyerism. We know more than the characters, and therefore, can laugh at the intensity of their lives, knowing that, ultimately everything will have to work out. Or, we can take a slapstick route, filled with prat falls and over-emotive players whose panderings to the audience bring rolling laughter to wash over the stage.  It is up to the director to take either (or both, if you’re good), and craft something new and beautiful with it. I saw many lovely “moments”, but very few cohesive characters, or emotional arcs. There seemed to be a lack of focus for many of the actors, that I would attribute to the meandering and, in many cases, contradictory choices that were allowed to be made on the stage.

Rob Leinheiser (Festen the Fool). Photo by Joshua McKerrow.

Rob Leinheiser (Festen the Fool). Photo by Joshua McKerrow.

But, there were a few highlights in this show. The Fool (Rob Leinheiser) is energetic and emotive without being overwrought (which is no mean feat for a Shakespearean Fool). A bit more focus would not be amiss, but he did a great job in this role.

Olivia, played by Rachel Manteuffel, was chiding and giddy by turns, but always focused and precise. The dual personalities could have been reined in a bit, but overall she was lovely to watch.

Then we have the saviours of the show – Frank Mancino and Hannah Sweet (Toby Belch and Maria, respectively), gave performances that were nuanced, hilarious, emotional, and engaging. They had a mastery of the language (which is incredibly important in Shakespeare that allowed them to bring 400 year old words into the 21st century without anything lost in translation.  Watching the two of them plan and execute Malvolio’s downfall was a sheer delight.

I look forward to seeing new and exciting things from this company. I hope they learn from this experience. As long as they do that, they will succeed and flourish. I wish them all the best.

Running Time: Two and a half hours, with one intermission.

Twelfth Night plays through August 30, 2014 at Theatre Prometheus performing at The Writer’s Center -4508 Walsh Street, in  Bethesda, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.

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