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Dangereuse: ‘Twelfth Night’ at the Shakespeare Theatre Company – Present Mirth Hath Present Laughter

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Many consider Twelfth Night Shakespeare’s supreme achievement in comedy. It is also one of his most popular and frequently produced plays. George Bernard Shaw, who hated Shakespeare, described it as a “crown jewel…of dramatic poetry.” In the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production, it has found a rich setting for that jewel.

Twelfth Night is based on the holiday of Epiphany—the twelfth night after Christmas—when the Three Wise Men gave gifts to the Christ child. In Shakespearean England, it was a time of rebellion against authority, reversal of the positions of master and servant, drinking, dancing, and out-of-control exuberance. Director Ethan McSweeny notes that his interpretation focuses on something we can all relate to; falling in love with the wrong person.

Andrew Weems as Sir Toby Belch, Derek Smith as Malvolio, and Heath Saunders as Feste in Twelfth Night. Photo by Scott Suchman.

With its rapid pace, first class clowning, and flamboyant characters, this Twelfth Night does not emphasize the melancholy aspects of the work. It is more a celebration of the right to pleasure in an upside-down world. The intricacy of the composition is such that other meanings come to mind too, long after you have left the theatre.

Twelfth Night features a love triangle between Duke Orsino, his beloved but less-than-interested Olivia, and Viola, who has been shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria, essentially a fantasy realm. After disguising herself as the male page Cesario, Viola becomes Orsino’s servant. He sends her to Countess Olivia to plead his case. This strategy, in life or in art, never seems to end well.

Paul Deo Jr., as Sebastian and Antoinette Robinson as Viola in Twelfth Night. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Here, Olivia falls for Viola as Cesario. Olivia’s witty chambermaid Maria sets up the steward, the puritanical Malvolio, in a plot which will lead to his humiliation. She believes it will be an entertaining and well-deserved comeuppance. Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch, and her putative suitor, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, join in the revelry. Olivia’s Fool, Feste, serves as our guide and is the most intelligent person onstage.

As we enter, we see Sidney Harman Hall magically transformed into an airport lounge with a giant Christmas tree. Instead of a proscenium, there is a thrust stage with seating on both sides. This fits in perfectly with the drama’s emphasis on the spectator as participant. The audience becomes a kind of protagonist, by observing Viola’s cross-dressing and the downfall of Malvolio.

A variety of passengers and airport personnel arrive. One airport employee wears a Santa hat. There are flight attendants; a woman with a stroller; a guy in a hoodie with a guitar. One man walks in sporting a Hawaiian shirt and shorts. A dog is taken out of a large kennel. There is a woman in a hijab. Next, the scene has shifted and we are on the plane itself. A taped announcement “Thank you for choosing Shakespeare!” causes much laughter.

What happens next is spectacular but I don’t want to spoil it by describing it. Suffice it to say that Viola ends up in Illyria. We next see the debonair Orsino (Bhavesh Patel), who delivers some of the most famous lines in Shakespeare: “If music be the food of love, play on.” Patel, as Orsino, brings out every possible dramatic element in what can seem a curiously static role, at least until the end. He is instantly drawn to Viola/Cesario (Antoinette Robinson), but downplays any erotic implications; after holding or touching his page, he will pat him on the back in a friendly fashion, or straighten his jacket. Nothing going on here.

Viola, a part which has been enacted by Anne Hathaway, Judi Dench, and, surprisingly, Mark Rylance, is one of Shakespeare’s greatest. Robinson is especially effective when attempting to give Orsino’s speech to the unresponsive Olivia. Her best contribution is the impression she conveys of sincerity and decency. She serves beautifully as the still center of the piece.

Hannah Yelland as Olivia has the range and the authority necessary for the character. One of her best moments occurs when, after instantly developing a massive crush on Cesario, she assesses her own behavior at their first meeting. She flawlessly captures the self-criticism which follows a date during which you know you said something stupid; “What is your parentage?” she wails. Olivia, like Elizabeth I, attained power by losing a father and a brother. Also like Elizabeth, she has resisted marriage.

Andrew Weems as Sir Toby Belch and Derek Smith as Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Sir Toby Belch (Andrew Weems), Maria (Emily Townley), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jim Lichtscheidl), and Fabian (Koral Kent) are a merry band of plotters, and their scenes are, to put it informally, a scream. Wait till you see Weems as Toby dancing in his dashing red robe or Lichtscheidl cavorting in shorts, carrying a tennis racket. Townley as the buxom Maria is an energetic ringleader, flirting determinedly with Sir Toby as she plans her revenge. Kent, who was Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, is equally appealing here as she bounces around the Christmas tree in gold sneakers.

Andrew Aguecheek resembles no one so much as Garth in the 1992 film Wayne’s World. He and Sir Toby are a hilarious team. When Feste joins in as they sing “Hold thy peace” (the Elizabethan version of “Shut up”) the joy is infectious.
Robert Armin, the very first Feste, was known as a gifted singer and ventriloquist. These abilities are showcased in the piece, which includes some deservedly famous songs. Feste is even required to impersonate a country priest to exorcise “demons” from Malvolio.

The multi-talented Heath Saunders is an inspired choice for Feste. As he sings “O mistress mine, where are you roaming?” his musicianship has an opportunity to shine. Feste is, in a sense, a paradoxical figure. His jokes impress several of the characters, and he is the only character who moves between all the many worlds. But he is still Olivia’s servant—here he wears a janitor’s uniform and carries his guitar with his tools, like a mop. In a work with endless mysteries and puzzles, he poses the question, “Who is the real Fool?” Is it one of us? Or is it the audience?

Twelfth Night has many potential star parts (Viola, Malvolio, Sir Toby, Olivia, Feste, even Sir Andrew) but Malvolio is often the focus. Derek Smith’s Malvolio is one of those rare examples of an actor perfectly embodying a role. The headlines write themselves: “Derek Smith IS Malvolio”. It is especially rewarding to see an actor whose performances I have enjoyed in so many productions succeed so brilliantly. Instead of yellow garters, he wears an entire yellow outfit (Olivia hates yellow; so did Elizabeth I).

As he appears, like a deus ex machina, in the center of the balcony, he waves his legs like a chorus girl and grins like the Cheshire cat. I almost expected him, like the cat, to disappear, leaving only his smile behind. As he woos Olivia, he sways, he dances, he even (not to give it away) faints. In the past, Malvolio has been a Spanish grandee, a mad holy man, and, in the case of actor/manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, a “peacock” attended by four miniature Malvolios, who ape their master’s every action.

Every time I have seen Malvolio, I have felt sorry for him. No matter how nasty he is in the beginning, I still thought “Oh, look what they are doing to that poor man.” Smith’s Malvolio is just irritating enough that I felt no guilt whatsoever in enjoying his mortification. Smith uses some of the beloved and oft-repeated stage business of previous Malvolios—“Mee-ow” was originated by Desmond Barrit. But his Malvolio is unmistakably and triumphantly his own.

The highlight of his performance, and indeed of the entire evening, is the famous “M.O.A.I.” speech. In the love letter which Malvolio believes has been written by Olivia, the initials M.O.A.I. have caused endless speculation and become an irresistible mystery to Twelfth Night fans. All I can say is, you may not find the answer here, but you will never see the speech delivered with more panache.

Heath Saunders as Feste and Antoinette Robinson as Viola in Twelfth Night. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The debate regarding the pirate Antonio (David Bishins) and Viola’s twin Sebastian (Paul Deo, Jr.) has centered around whether their relationship has any romantic overtones. Here, it seems more of a friendship. Bishins portrays Antonio as a forthright, bluff sailor, which works well for the combat scenes. Deo’s Sebastian is loyal and generous, like his sister, but does not hesitate to fight or take advantage of a romantic opportunity when the occasion occurs.

Matthew Deitchman doubles as Curio and Music Director. Along with the Ensemble, Jack Henry Doyle, Chelsea Mayo, Maggie Thompson, and Jeff Alan Young, he contributes to the overall impression of a visually and musically opulent production.

The play as written offers a great deal of freedom to a scene designer. Director McSweeny and Scenic Designer Lee Savage have taken full advantage of this fact. The airport lounge transforms seamlessly into Olivia’s home or Orsino’s court. Malvolio throws Olivia’s ring from a balcony. Scott Zielinski’s lighting enhances the performances and set design. Original Music and Sound Design is by Lindsay Jones. Most of the songs were lyrical and well-performed—The Twelve Days of Christmas adds to the holiday touch. Projection/Video Designer Patrick W. Lord deserves credit for his part in this gigantic carnival. Jennifer Moeller’s costumes, as always, are a glittering pleasure. Olivia and her handmaidens wear black dresses with chic fringed parasols. Feste as the rustic parson has an enormous red cloak and hat, which he uses to great effect.

Twelfth Night has some unusually independent women; Viola’s cross-dressing increases her freedom of action. Olivia is an heiress and manages her own estate. Maria is the instigator and power behind the plot to discredit Malvolio. The themes of doubling, twinness, and madness are certainly present, but the central emphasis here is on falling in love. As one of Feste’s melodies states:

What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter.
Present mirth hath present laughter.

Don’t miss your chance to see this strikingly original production.

Running Time: Three hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

Twelfth Night plays through December 20, 2017, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, performing at Sidney Harman Hall– 610 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 547-1122 or go online.

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