“Twelfth Night” at Westport Country Playhouse
By Irene Backalenick
“Twelfth Night,” now playing at the Westport Country Playhouse, gets off to a roaring start. Director Mark Lamos (who is also the Playhouse’s artistic director) uses a silhouette technique to good effect. In the pre-show moments, the audience is treated to a violent, thunderous tempest played out behind the scrim curtain, with actors miming their storm-tossed fate. Would that the same high level of excitement prevailed throughout the show! Alas, it does not.
But the stage is effectively set for the shipwreck story to follow. Shakespearean comedies are often prone to plots with shipwrecks, separated twins, gender twists, mistaken identities -- all of which dominate “Twelfth Night.”
Viola is tossed ashore on the coast of Illyria, an imaginary island. To survive, she pretends to be a lad named Cesario, and soon finds work with the Duke. The Duke is in love with the Countess Olivia (or so he thinks), and sends Cesario to plead his cause. Olivia spurns the Duke’s love, but falls for (she thinks) Cesario. But Cesario himself (or herself) is in love with the Duke. This being a Shakespearean comedy, these yearnings and gender confusions will sort themselves out by the final act. True love will prevail.
Balancing this high comedy is a low comedy subplot--provided by Olivia’s household. Her uncle, Sir Toby Belch, a drunken lout and mischief-maker, heads the motley crew, as they plot to bring down Olivia’s haughty chief-of-staff Malvolio.
As it turns out, these are the scenes which infuse the production with life. Sir Toby (performed by the estimable David Schramm) is ably matched by the Fool Feste (Darius de Haas), Malvolio (David Adkins) and Sir Andrew Aguecheck (Jordan Coughtry). They are all highly amusing caricatures, but it is Donnetta Lavinia Grays (as Olivia’s maid Maria), who gives the show its best moments, with the very excitement promised in pre-show moments.
As for the high-comedy characters, both Lucas Hall (the Duke) and Mahira Kakkar (as Viola) read their lines emotionally, but fall short of convincing portrayals. Hall gives a sweet boyish performance, but lacks the stature one would expect of a Duke. And while Kakkar is a fetching Cesario, she never convinces one that this girl is pretending to be a boy. Rachid Sabitri is strongly convincing as Viola’s brother Sebastian, but, alas, appears infrequently.
In short, the uneven performances of this particular “Twelfth Night” reminds one all too well how magical this show can really be. Illyria is, after all, a fairyland, a world to which we would all like to escape. Only spasmodically does this Playhouse production make that leap.
This review also appears on nytheaterscene.com