What the State Theatre Company's handsome but curiously reserved production of Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night' lacks is that liberating light-headedness of intoxication
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., March 3, 2006
State Theatre, through March 5
Running Time: 2 hrs, 30 min
The young countess, who has been in mourning for her late brother and so resisted the advances of all suitors, is herself advancing on the messenger of her most ardent pursuer, the duke of Illyria. She moves toward the young servant, a sultry smile blooming on her lips as her fingers slowly loose button after button on her demure black jacket. When she has undone the last button, she whips off the top, revealing bare shoulders, arms, and neck above an alluring black bustier. Whatever propriety might be dictated by her position or funeral custom is recklessly cast aside in that act that, taken with the vixenish expression on her face and gleam of desire in her eyes, bespeaks intoxication. When Kate Roberts' Olivia turns giddy huntress, late in the first half of the State Theatre Company's production of Twelfth Night, you realize what's been missing in so much of this handsome but curiously reserved revival of Shakespeare's comedy: the sense of fizzy light-headedness that frees one from conventional behavior.
The play itself is rife with intoxication, some literal as in the nonstop carousing of Olivia's kinsman Toby Belch and his addlepated partner-in-crime, Sir Andrew Aguecheek but still more of the romantic sort, with characters becoming so besotted with one another they cast off their inhibitions and act as imprudently or foolishly as drunkards. Part of the fun comes from the complications Shakespeare sows into the mix the messenger that's got Olivia so hot isn't the man she thinks he is but a woman, Viola, in men's clothing, a disguise that unfortunately keeps Viola from revealing her love to the apple of her eye, Orsino, the duke for whom she's bringing valentines to Olivia; Olivia's vain, priggish steward, Malvolio, is tricked into thinking she's in love with him but the heart of it is always in that letting go: of formality, of restraint, of self.
And yet, the world of Illyria, as conjured here by director Paul Mullins, remains a pretty decorous place most of the time. Despite the heat that's supposed to be building in the Olivia/Viola/Orsino triangle, the temperature on stage feels fairly even. Declarations of love are well-spoken Yesenia Garcia declaims Viola's famous "make me a willow cabin" speech with clarity and sensitivity but rarely burn with passion. (A notable exception being Brent Werzner's Antonio, whose devotion for Viola's twin brother, Sebastian, blazes across the stage.) And although Steve Shearer makes his Sir Toby an agreeably dissolute reprobate (as he did as a similar character in The Way of the World at St. Edward's earlier this season), the riotous revelry of Belch and company never strays far beyond tipsiness and sobers up quickly once a complaining Malvolio hits the scene. Sometimes this low-key approach works, most notably with Tom Byrne's Feste, who, with his rumpled linen suit and grizzled cheek, comes across as a vaudeville vet, a seasoned old pro for whom entertaining comes effortlessly. More often, one has the sense of champagne that's sat out too long: The flavor of the thing is still there, but the effervescence that makes it special, that bubbly tickling of the palate, isn't. And when you hit those moments of welcome excess, as when Corey Jones' glowering Malvolio forces his face into a smile with a twisting of features worthy of Jekyll becoming Hyde, its absence is yet more keenly felt.
On the floor of designer Christopher McCollum's elegant set lie several chairs, upturned as if knocked over in a rowdy celebration. Only the different ways that they're turned over and their distance from one another signal that their positions are the result of artful placement rather than some haphazard bit of human unruliness, some passion or, more to the point, foolishness. I'm not the countess' fool, Feste teasingly protests to Viola/Cesario at one point. "The lady Olivia has no folly." This Twelfth Night has some but would it had more.