Twelfth Night

Local Arts Reviews

Twelfth Night: Ball of Confusion

Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theatre, through October 6

Running Time: 2 hrs, 30 min

Sometimes I go to see a play that I know well, but what I see happening on the stage seems to have little or nothing to do with the play I know. This latest Equity production from the Austin Shakespeare Festival is that type of show. Shakespeare's Twelfth Night centers on Viola, a young woman who, after being separated from her brother during a shipwreck, finds herself in a strange country, where she disguises herself as a man and offers her services to the Duke Orsino. He sends the disguised Viola to Olivia to deliver his suit of love, and Olivia falls in love with Viola.

It's a complicated play, and director Guy Roberts, his production team, and his cast do too little to embody or enhance its multilayered story. Leilah Stewart's set is covered with sand and has a seldom-used wading pool, but for the most part it has a classical flair, with a long balcony bolstered by columns and a smaller porch that sports a swing, which supports the story in no obvious way. While the color of the set is not unpleasant, on the left side of the stage there are some much-used doors that are painted an unsightly green. Add to this a metallic cafe chairs and table, complete with vase and flower, and I have no idea where I am. The stage space is huge, and Roberts seems intent on using every inch of it in almost every scene. Some scenes play far upstage from the audience, making the story seem distant and obscure. Storytelling lives on tension, but Roberts often has the actors perform while standing 10, 15, even 20 feet apart. He also far too often has actors speak to each other without ever looking at the person to whom they are speaking. This is a romantic comedy, but the actors can't generate any romantic heat because they're standing miles apart and not looking at each other.

The night I attended, the actors labored over every line as if each was equal in importance. While the tempo picked up in the second act, other questionable choices were consistent in both acts. When Olivia's manservant Malvolio attempts to deliver to Viola a ring "he" supposedly left behind, Roberts stages the action between the scripted scenes as an extended chase, but the result adds only minutes to an already long act. Mixed into the action were modern pop songs that I believe were meant to comment cleverly on it, but these also added only time. (That these songs were some of the more polished pieces in the show is unfortunate, since the actors stumbled over Shakespeare's text more than a few times.) While Buffy Manners' costumes mixed pre-modern and modern silhouettes to interesting effect, the colors didn't add up to any consistent palette. Finally, the rock music of Blues Condition jarred us into and out of every scene, and sometimes right into the middle of a scene, so that in the end, what with the strange staging, acting, set, costumes, and sound, you end up with nothing so much as a mass of whirling, flailing confusion.

Two performances stood out. David Stokey's Sebastian was earnest youth personified, and he made Shakespeare's language sound so natural that I wished he had a bigger role. Paul Norton's Malvolio was a pedantic picture of black and slimy vanity, and like Stokey, Norton displayed a facility with the language that was not evident in many of the performances. However, in the final analysis, this Twelfth Night was a lot of effort that seemed to go in too many directions at once.

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Twelfth Night, Austin Shakespeare Festival, Guy Roberts, Leilah Stewart, Buffy Manners, Blues Condition, David Stokey, Paul Norton

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