Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Twelfth Night - Performance Log (August 2008)

Twelfth Night

Directed by Amelia Meckler


Lincoln Park, Seattle, WA

August 3, 2008

Gil: Twelfth Night is my favorite comedy; it is with Congreve’s The Way of the World, arguably the best dramatic comedy of all time.

Randall: Wow, a strong recommendation. I'd have to throw a Moliere in there, but I'd agree about Twelfth Night. I think you said something similar when you opened our first discussion on Comedy of Errors, that Shakespeare "wrote comedies until he wrote a perfect Twelfth Night, then stopped." It certainly was a pleasure to see it performed by GreenStage.

Gil: I liked director Amelia Meckler's limiting the "set" to just two benches, unless one includes the ‘prison’ Malvolio is locked in, an ingenious barred cell-as-mask clamped on his head as he is tormented by Feste/Sir Topaz. So except for characterization-by-costume, the play is the (only) thing.

Randall: That reminds me of something you once noted about the productions of Pericles you've seen, that in general they're pretty good because the play is flawed and that every interesting or above average production results from director and designers working harder to come up with a unifying vision. Here, with Twelfth Night, such an effort really isn't necessary. In a way, less is more. That's one thing I was getting at in the log on GreenStage’s Hamlet, that the minimalism common to Shakespeare performed in a park is akin to the nearly bare stages on which these plays were originally performed.

Gil: Right. Wondrous sets can interpret and delight as in the Twelfth Night I reported on at the Seattle Rep last fall or the hugely inventive set for A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Ashland this summer. But the history of Shakespeare performance shows how often productions were overwhelmed by sets, costumes, music, and technological innovation, especially in the Nineteenth Century.

Randall: I think that's still true today, especially given many of the Guthrie productions I've seen, and not just of Shakespeare, over the years. However, a director willing to minimize many of the production accoutrements must have the courage to let the actors carry the play. The Love's Labor's Lost that I saw recently, which had no set, ebbed and flowed depending on each actor's ability.

Gil: In Twelfth Night, a director must face her first challenge when she opens the text and discovers there is a character named “Sir Toby Belch.” And then she finds Sebastian reporting that he and his sister were both born in an hour, and Twelfth Night will expand on the possibilities of mistaken identity of twins in The Comedy of Errors, but this time the separated twins are “identical” fraternal twins.

Randall: I have to say, I've always wanted to see Viola and Sebastian played by the same person, with different clothes, as opposed to two different people wearing (how did that happen?) the same clothes. To pull this off, you might need some fancy production design involving mirrors for the last scene, or more likely a double for the final scene would work. Once the audience has gotten used to the same person, creating the "identical" fraternal image, it would be easier to engage willing suspension of disbelief to work the double scene. But I'd like to try this because I always catch myself groaning a bit when Sebastian shows up in Act 2 and he's a foot taller than the actress playing Viola. I think 'yeah, like Olivia is going to overlook that!' Meckler found two similar looking actors (played by Nicole Vernon and Banton Foster), but I didn't really get why they would be wearing the same outfit.

Gil: I’ve seen the twins in Errors double cast, a perfect solution. On the other hand, I’ve seen a Twelfth Night in Boulder, Colorado, in which Viola was Korean, Sebastian was Filipino, and the audience was invited to remember that all Asians look alike, don’t they? At GreenStage, it was credibly solved by similar facial structure and identical male costumes, reasonable in that Viola chooses male clothing for her Cesario disguise from her sense of her twin brother’s wardrobe.

Randall: Oh, right.

Gil: The Belch question is more crucial. Broad farce can really trample on subtle romantic plots, not just the Orsino/Viola-Cesario/Olivia triangle but also the counterpoint Olivia/Malvolio/Sir Andrew admittedly raucous subplot. This Sir Toby (Mathew Ahrens) was a roaring drunk and therefore loomed larger in both roistering and fighting than I was prepared to accept.

Randall: I've seen a number of mean-drunk Tobys it is a little disconcerting but I think Meckler really tried to smooth the wrinkles out a bit by incorporating Toby's love for Maria more substantially into the play. Shakespeare tells us, off hand, that the two have married at the end of the play. But at GreenStage we see them at a number of unspoken moments come close to kissing or clearly drawn to one another. At those times, Ahrens seems to recede from the roistering somewhat. The result, for me, was a production that explores the foolishness of all lovers, and here all the principal characters, including Toby, are lovers.

You use the phrase "subtle romantic plots." I don't think there's much subtle about Meckler's approach. Take Malvolio (Orion Protonentis). We're used to the foolishness of his love; it is above his state. Meckler discards the concept of "state" (although the line remains), and makes his inappropriateness more a matter of character which Protonentis plays with more physicality than I'm used to.

Gil: I thought Protonentis's stentorian declarative style was disdainful, yes, but more Addams Family than Jeeves, hardly a steward appropriate to the household for Olivia’s seven years of grief.

Randall: Sure, but Nicole Fierstein's Olivia is hardly a paragon of asceticism or reserve. The approach to Malvolio may fit the more cartoonish characterizations. So again, not so subtle.

Gil: Yes, Olivia was a bit hard to credit. After she is smitten with Orsino’s messenger, her costume goes from black to scarlet, but her character also shifts from grave to adolescent groupie. Fierstein does everything but pant, so Cesario’s recognition that Olivia loves her/him is crushed into panic. I'd add that Fierstein’s voice, shrill and loud enough so no one in Lincoln Park, not just GreenStage’s audience, could miss a line, also bent her character to extremes.

Randall: I found that as fascinating as it was hard to listen to, sort of like the moment that Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor expose Jean Hagen's true singing voice in Singin' in the Rain. But the fascinating part was how much it wrecked my concept of Olivia; she can't be shrill. Listen when she says:

"Oh world, how apt the poor are to be proud.

If one should be a prey, how much the better

To fall before the lion than the wolf!

The clock upbraids me with the waste of time.

Be not afraid, good youth, I will not have you,

And yet, when wit and youth is come to harvest,

Your wife is like to reap a proper man.

There lies your way, due west." (3.1.129-136)

Set aside the very Victorian, proper face-shaping p's here. The sentiments alone struggle with propriety, communicate a wistful yearning in the face of obligation. Voice is so important. Fierstein's conjured a more broadly comic Olivia than I was comfortable with.

Gil: Meckler's production gave me a new insight into and affection for Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Instead of merely being a dim-witted foil for Sir Toby’s venal roistering, Thomas Maier was naïve, yes, but shy, awed, funny, and capable of delight. Maier has a wonderful face, infinitely expressive, never frozen in expressions of ‘I’m acting’ that mar so many publicity still photographs. This meant Aguecheek is an outsider, not just someone Toby has brought in to gull for a season’s entertainment, but a normative counterpoint to the brittle social milieu of Orsino, Olivia, and Feste. This was the best Aguecheek I have ever seen, and I will treasure this Twelfth Night because of him.

Randall: I liked Maier a lot, as well, although I'd put him behind Max Wright's portrayal in the 1998 Nicholas Hytner production at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre (it was later televised) with Helen Hunt as Viola, Paul Rudd as Orsino, and Kyra Sedgwick as Olivia. Wright, you may have forgotten, played Willie on the TV sit-com ALF. As Aguecheek, his deadpan acceptance of perpetual loserdom was hysterical.

Gil: Well, if you're going to namedrop, the first time I saw Twelfth Night was at the Old Vic, with Leo McKern (Rumpole himself) as Feste, not-yet-Dame Peggy Ashcroft as Viola, and as a mere page, Dorothy Tutin. That, as much as anything, was the beginning of my addiction to Shakespeare.

Logged by Gil and Randall Findlay

Photo: Orion Protonensis as Malvolio and Sam Hagen as Feste in GreenStage's Twelfth Night. Photo by Ken Holmes.

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