If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
“TWELFTH NIGHT” Under the Stars in New Haven
It's a minor opinion to be sure, but my favorite Shakespeare play has always been "Twelfth Night". Perhaps it's sentimental. I came to Connecticut over 30 years ago and saw the comedy at Stratford's American Shakespeare Theatre (remember that place?) in a luminous production with the late Lynn Redgrave in the leading role of Viola. I've never forgotten that experience and always enjoy revisiting the play no matter what the circumstances. Those circumstances aren't the best at the Elm Shakespeare Company, unfortunately, where the play is currently serving as the New Haven theatre's 20th anniversary season offering.
Artistic Director James Andreassi has been the driving force behind Elm Shakespeare since its inception and deserves much credit for what has been a commendable annual summer festival each summer in beautiful Edgerton Park. This is his final season at the helm and he both directs and plays the role of Sir Toby Belch in "Twelfth Night". The complicated story concerns young Viola who disguises herself as a man to work for the lovesick Duke Orsino. He pines for the regal Olivia who is mourning the recent death of her brother but soon becomes interested in Viola in her male drag. To further complicate matters Sebastian, Viola's identical twin long presumed dead, suddenly arrives on the scene.
Andreassi has given the play a Spanish setting for what seems like no other purpose than the opportunity to pipe in Flamenco music and give the sad clown character, Feste (talented singer/musician Jacob Heimer), a chance to strut his stuff with original songs. He has also selected to go for a very melancholy interpretation of "Twelfth Night" which is fine as long as one remembers that the play's alternate title is "What You Will!", which emphasizes the inherent comic elements and is not included on the theatre program's title page. No, this is a very mellow production that rarely takes full advantage of the comedy's more lighthearted moments. There's a passivity to many of the performances and the recognition scene, which should register merriment and surprise is, instead, low-key and rather somber. Check out the expression on Olivia's face as she walks off with her new husband. It is not the look of a happy woman. That, apparently, is Andreassi's point but it's a sour one in a play that, while acknowledging love's trials and disappointments, should also celebrate its joy.
The performances here run the gamut with strong showings by Aaron Moss, a sturdy, well-spoken Orsino and Raphael Massie, very funny as the pompous Malvolio, Olivia's manservant (though his costume for the cross-garter scene is way out of whack with the rest of the play). Lydia Barnett-Mulligan's Viola lacks poetry and sexual daring and her youthful approach clashes with the more seasoned performances including Andreassi's likable but somewhat underplayed Toby. Viola's beautiful and crucial "willow cabin" speech, for example, is tossed away in an unremarkable reading by the actress. In other roles, Andrea Goldman doesn't possess the regal gravitas or stature to play Olivia and Paula Plum's Maria isn't having enough fun with the playful, randy relationship she shares with Toby.
As usual, Elm Shakespeare's glorious outdoor setting in scenic Edgerton Park is a real plus and the impressive two tiered setting by designer Vladimir Shpitalnik is most pleasing to the eye. But Adreassi's staging on this vast playing area is often confusing and much of it goes underutilized. Sound and lighting designs by Nathan A. Roberts and Jamie Burnett, however, work just fine. For a lovely summer evening under the stars, you could do a lot worse though, all told, this is not Elm Shakespeare's finest hour.
"Twelfth Night" continues at Edgerton Park, 75 Cliff Street in New Haven, Connecticut through September 6. Admission is free, donations are accepted. For further information call 203.874.0801 or visit: www.elmshakespeare.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org .