By David A. Rosenberg
For those who don’t laugh at Shakespeare’s clowns but are too embarrassed to say so, now’s the time to come out of the closet. Westport Country Playhouse’s production of “Twelfth Night” will confirm prejudices. It just ain’t funny, not at all, not by a long shot, certainly not to Tuesday’s audience, which barely tittered.
Could it ever have been, you might well ask? If you saw the 2009 production in Central Park, you’d have seen something magical, lively, gorgeous, uproarious. Okay, it starred Audra McDonald and Anne Hathaway, plus other notables, so the advantage was palpable.
Still, there’s no excuse for the desultory, leaden production that the usually skilled Mark Lamos directs. Even some of his blocking is awkward, as in the scene where Olivia presents herself and her ladies to Viola.
This is one of Shakespeare’s mistaken identity plays. Viola and her brother Sebastian are separated by a shipwreck, each assuming the other has perished. Viola lands at Illyria, rendered by scenic designer Andrew Boyce as something out of a whimsical Coney Island funhouse: sand, balloons, a dress dummy, fallen chandeliers and empty picture frames fill stage left.
Disguising herself as Cesario, Viola enlists in the service of the love-sick Orsino, who pines for Olivia. She rejects him, partly because she, like Viola, also mourns a brother. Sent to woo Olivia for Orsino, Cesario/Viola awakens Olivia’s libido. She falls for him/her, but Viola has already set her cap for Orsino.
All is set aright when twin brother Sebastian turns up. Olivia now has a mirror image of Cesario, allowing the latter to finally snare Orsino. Left out in the cold is Sebastian’s close companion, Antonio. Indeed, the production more than hints at an erotic relationship between Sebastian and Antonio, exploited in the effective melancholic ending with its bittersweet “for the rain it raineth every day.”
Lamos stresses melancholy, not a way-out choice considering Shakespeare’s layers of unrequited love. Yet comedy is neglected. Even the surefire joke about Olivia’s face - “If God did all” - misfires. Sure, the clowns are still around: drunken Sir Toby Belch, cowardly Sir Andrew Aguecheek, goofy Fabian and wise fool Feste, egged on by Olivia’s maid Maria (Donnetta Lavinia Grays in the evening’s strongest performance). But they’re no bundles of joy.
Their baiting of Olivia’s puritanical servant Malvolio should be a highlight, as it’s one of the Bard’s most famous and skilled sequences. Here, however, it’s phony. The letter that Maria has forged to look like Olivia’s handwriting is actually typed. When Malvolio, believing Olivia wants him to wear cross-gartered yellow stockings, appears in them, they’re banded in green and red, making him look like a Christmas tree. Nor is his jailing the shuddery scene it’s meant to be.
Shakespeare’s emphasis is on love in all its forms - romantic, friendly, platonic, lustful - and particularly the pitfalls of self-love. All eventually learn that true love is selfless, thus the happy couplings at the end. Only Malvolio remains under a dark cloud. “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you,” he says, a curse which should be chilling but is set so far upstage and behind so many characters that its effect is lost.
Besides Grays, a few others shine when they can. David Schramm is a jolly Sir Toby, Rachid Sabitri a warm Sebastian, Mahira Kakkar an impish Viola and Paul Anthony Stewart a mysterious Antonio. The rest of the cast is uneven at best, maybe because they have to emote barefooted for some reason (at the beach?) and wear Tilly Grimes’ mishmash costumes.
John Gromada’s music is not content with the likes of the script’s “O Mistress Mine” but has to add “So Long, Farewell” from “The Sound of Music” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” presumably a nod to the play’s title. Perhaps Westport should have produced the 1968 “Your Own Thing,” a cheeky, gender-bending musical version of Shakespeare’s play. At least, that was both funny and romantic.