“Twelfth Night” at the Westport Playhouse - through November 5

 

By Tom Nissley

The Westport Playhouse has mounted an ambitious production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” with an interesting cast, a handsome set (designed by Andrew Boyce), and what might be called a compromised approach to the action of the plot. That plot, you will recall, involves twins, identical to look at though two different sexes, lost in a shipwreck, both rescued, and each believing the other is dead. They arrive, separately, in the seacoast port of Illyria, where a duke falls in love with one of them, and a countess with the other.

 

“Twelfth Night” has so many dimensions as it connects with human situations. It raises lots of questions that are day to day for many of us, like:

 

What to do with stuffed shirts? What to do with drunken relatives? What to do with depressed celebrities? How to have fun in the meantime? Whom to love?, or another way to describe that, what to do with beautiful youngsters who drop in from a shipwreck? And then there’s the sexual ambiguity that spills from the plot. What to do with that?

 

Let’s start with the celebrities? In Illyria they are Orsino (Lucas Hall), the Duke who pines for Olivia (Susan Kelechi Watson), the Countess who mourns for her brother. Possibly it would be fair also to include Antonio (Paul Anthony Stewart), who no longer lives in Illyria after a fight with the Duke destroyed his welcome there. Each of these three quickly becomes attached to the handsome young couple that has been saved, albeit independently, from the hurricane at sea.

 

Antonio has the most direct approach. He takes Sebastian into his home and falls in love with him. They appear, at least for the weeks they have been together, to be lovers. Antonio gives Sebastian money, he follows him back to Illyria, where he’s in danger, after all, and has the most to lose when Sebastian is pulled into the arms of Olivia. Mark Lamos direction, which has not succeeded to un-woodify much of the action, very nicely has Antonio left alone at play’s end, sitting on the sand in contemplation.

 

But Orsino and Olympia also make a leap out of their melancholy when they get to know Viola. Viola is pretending to be a boy, named Cesario. That’s because she thought she could get a better job as a man, but it turns her into a complex character. There’s a fun scene in which the Duke and his “attendants” do a morning run and some impressive calisthenics. Cesario, newly employed, has a hard time with the push-ups. But later, when he/she returns once again from pleading with Olympia, Orsino leans very close to a kiss with his man Cesario, who would like to receive that kiss as Viola.

 

A major sub-plot concerns the drunken nephew of Olympia, Sir Toby Belch (well played by David Schramm), his playboy friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a bouncing Jordan Coughtry), and the servant Maria (a superb Donnetta Lavinia Grays). Between them they connive to embarrass the very stuffy Malvolio (David Atkins) and to expose his foolish inner self. Malvolio represents the Tea Party - like Puritans of Shakespeare’s day. And the conspirators, joined by Fabian (Justin Kruger, one of the most alive of all the actors) represent the several components occupying Wall Street and the nations’ parks. If we stop to realize that party politics was alive in Shakespeare’s world, it helps to understand why the audience is meant to enjoy the two extremes reaching for each other’s necks.

 

By the end of the play, Viola has been revealed to be a woman. She gets Orsino, Olivia gets Sebastian, and as I’ve already noted, Antonio gets left behind. Darius de Haas, an excellent Feste, sings the curtain down.

 

“Twelfth Night” is being shown to many students at performances during this run, and it is plenty family appropriate for all ages. I did notice a girl in front of me who seemed to sleep through much of it in both acts. So be a little prepared, if you take your kids, to answer the question, “is Shakespeare boring?” You might get away with “not usually,” or you might have to dig down to the finer points. There are some good ones in this production.

 

Tom Nissley, for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre - October 19, 2011

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