Twelfth Night - Westport Country Playhouse

By Geary Danihy

Why do some actors feel compelled to spew Shakespearean dialogue as if heavy hands were working their diaphragms as bellows? It does the play no good service, as is evident in the Westport Country Playhouse’s somewhat uneven production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” which recently opened under the direction of the Playhouse’s artistic director, Mark Lamos.

 

Such delivery - words ejected on a gush of air - does not allow for any intonation, inflection or nuance, and is one of the primary reasons why modern American audiences find Shakespeare “difficult.” It need not be so.

 

More experienced, or secure, actors, and there are several up there on the Playhouse’s stage, know how to “work” a Shakespearean line so that the music, or the humor, or the bite is made manifest. When these actors are on stage, the production seems to light up; when they are not, it becomes somewhat turgid.

 

Perhaps that is why the production seems a tad schizophrenic - it wants to be many different things all at once (consider Tilly Grimes’ costume design -- what era, pray tell, are we attempting to evoke here?). When Lamos allows the whimsy and playfulness inherent in the play to come forward, the actors seem to be charged. Body movement is more natural, interaction more engaging. There are many such moments and they often involve Sir Toby Belch (David Schramm), Feste (Darius De Haas), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jordan Coughtry) and Maria (Donnetta Lavinia Grays). In fact, one of the high points of the first act involves these four as they taunt Malvolio (David Adkins), who is protesting their revelry. They bid him goodnight in song, the tune alluding to the Von Trapp children saying goodbye to guests in “The Sound of Music.”

 

Would that such playfulness suffused the production, but such is not the case. When ribaldry is on the menu, things work fine, and certain character set-pieces, especially Malvolio’s discovery and reading of a forged letter and his subsequent appearance in yellow stockings cross-gartered, are the equal of any I’ve seen in other productions of the play. However, the same cannot be said of the staging of the mistaken identity and love interest scenes, and this has to do with chemistry (and the aforementioned spewing of lines).

 

Earnest as they are, Mahira Kakkar as Viola, Lucas Hall as Orsino, Susan Kelechi Watson as Olivia and Rachid Sabitri as Sebastian simply do not generate any sparks as frustrated lovers, and the overt homosexual yearnings of Antonio (Paul Anthony Stewart) for Sebastian seem a total misreading of Shakespeare’s lines (and the spirit of the age in which they were written), a misreading that is reinforced in the final image of the play: the young lovers happily drifting off as Feste gestures towards Antonio who, bereft, sits on the sand and pines.

 

Oh, yes - the sand. It occupies stage left, a cascade of sand in which is embedded a smashed chandelier and an empty picture frame, with several beach balls thrown in for good measure. This part of Andrew Boyce’s scenic design looks like it was meant for a staging of an Ionesco play, however his use of gossamer curtains is artful, and Robert Wierzel’s lighting design is dead-on: moody when it needs to be and joyful as called for.

 

Watching this production of “Twelfth Night” is like watching a gosling attempt to take flight for the first time. It has the wings and it yearns to soar -- it rises and you ache to see it take flight. But it doesn’t. It tries again, and it seems for a moment that it has broken free, but gravity wins.

 

“Twelfth Night” runs through Saturday, Nov. 5. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

 

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