Tuesday, February 16, 2010

“Is Life Worth Living?” offers the best kind of comedy: self-deprecating, ridiculous and very Irish

Upon taking their seats for “Is Life Worth Living?” in the tiny off-Broadway theatre hosting the Mint Theater Company, audiences immediately know what they’re in for. Not a corner, shadow or dark color can be found on stage; the reception of the Seaview Hotel is entirely round, with flowery, cutesy decorations, bright wall paper and all-white furniture. Clearly, these ultra-pleasant people know how to smother any trace of conflict, mystery or depth in their perfect little Irish town.

Fortunately for them, this missing complexity is brought to them in the form of two concerned and ambitious actors. Constance Constantia (Jordan Baker) and her husband Hector de la Mare (Kevin Kilner) expose the dark underbelly of these cozy townsfolk.

Lennox Robinson's play starts with lots of light-hearted banter as we get to know the characters. Things get more gripping when Constance and Hector practice for the people at the hotel. The actors get exactly what they were hoping for—an intense reaction from their audience—when Helena, the maid (played by Erin Moon), walks in and snaps. It all goes downhill from there: the little town gets swept away by Chekhov and Ibsen’s great (foreign) works of art. The stormy weather and dark room in beginning of Act One, Scene Two set the tone for the turn of events.

After the acting couple celebrates their profits from this little town’s ripeness for tragedy, they hear some striking news: one of their plays made a boy in the town suicidal. Funnily enough, he ends up only bruised and melancholy. Everyone on stage wails and charges the theater as a bad influence; meanwhile, the audience laughs over how the townsfolk unconsciously imitate what they see on stage.

Blaming all their misfortunes on their new exposure to art, the characters retain their surprising hilarity for the entirety of the two-hour production. These skillful actors discern the subtle line between the sober moments and the farcical comedy.

For example, when the hotel owner, John Twohig (played by Paul O’Brien), gets drunk and angry about the bills his wife racked up, the witnesses scramble to declare: it’s “A Doll’s House” reversed! Only after the embarrassing bystanders leave, John’s wife Annie (Bairbre Dowling) regally rises to her full height, confronting him physically and then verbally. Her husband repents then—he just wants moderation. Annie blames everyone’s high-strung emotions on taking the plays too seriously.

Next we see the Twohigs’ son Eddie (Graham Outerbridge) is now completely corrupted: dark, brooding, even rude. Whereas his speech before concerned his hopes for the future, now he speaks only of plays. He proclaims, “One learns through suffering.” His unrequited love for Christine (Leah Curney) is the subject of his discourse. In contrast, she argues that there are lovely things in the world, too: children, flowers, and the sea. She urges “stop realizing; be nice, Eddie.” Soon after this the title of the play is revealed in Act One’s climax as Eddie desperately cries, “religion and common sense be hanged: is life worth living?”

The town used to have just plain good-hearted people. However, ever since the plays started opening their minds, one outsider noticed that the townsfolk began to have a “strange, suspicious attitude—that they aren’t what they seem to be. They have dark pasts and darker futures! Two years ago, they were just nice.” To this, melodramatic Lizzie’s effable response is, “They’re marvelous plays—but it is hard to sleep afterwards.”

Even the government fell under the subversive effect: local T.D. Peter Hurley (Jeremy Lawrence) got kicked out of Parliament. The poor, predictable conformist was muddled by another Parliament official who “gave all these facts and figures” to reveal the inadequate quality of life for the Irish people. Hurley then “made a mistake” in voting against the corruption of his Party. “It was that play—Enemy of the People!” he exclaimed in his defense. Wretched, he and John lament how, “These plays put ideas into our heads…”

Jeremy Lawrence was one of the standout performers in the Mint’s production, along with Margaret Daly and Jordan Baker. Lawrence had the perfect physical interpretation of his character: a sniveling, oblivious, simple-minded politician. Daly illustrated the depth of her provincial character’s narcissism with hilarious sparks of hysteria and drama at totally unexpected moments. Baker, an actress playing an actress, deftly conveys the autobiographical touch Lennox Robinson gave to Constance as well as her husband.

The ending is ambiguous in a way—it doesn’t shove the moral down the audience’s throat, but rather encourages them to contemplate on their own. While Hector insists that he and Constance did accomplish their great mission of “lifting the stone to reveal the worms,” ultimately the circus comes to replace art and truth. Taken on a surface level, one may get the impression that mindless entertainment always trumps art. A woman in audience, during our talkback, commented: “The anti-intellectual quality in the end was surprising.” On the other hand, director Jonathan Bank observed, “This play is remarkably balanced. Lennox Robinson gave Helena the last word, and what she said was, ‘I’m glad I saw that play and my secret was uncovered.’”

“Is Life Worth Living?” must not be restricted to the labels of period piece or Irish play—though there are plenty of inside jokes. In fact, this play is a portrayal of all humanity: it shows the benefits of allowing yourself to be inspired by your environment, to empathize with others’ stories, and to explore life’s challenges instead of choosing ignorant bliss. As Bank confessed, “Sunshine is more appealing than rain; circus music is overpowering in delight. It’s inevitable.” With this assumption in mind, one may worry that people will always flock to entertainment and happy endings instead of challenging, evocative works of art. But the truth is the characters would’ve been stagnant—they never would’ve won the love or achievement they truly wanted—without these art-compelled crises of conscience.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Success!

I'm a paid, published freelancer!!! Here's my review on "Memphis"

News@Rider honored me with an interview!!! http://www.rider.edu/2529_17430.htm

The Rider News, too!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

“Hamlet” crosses desolation with hilarity in a production transcending time and history


Most Shakespeare productions highlight the importance of seeing of the Bard’s works for yourself and translating the confusing and multi-layered 16th century verbosity into body language, physical exchanges, moaning and groaning, high and low inflections, moving toward and away from others, cringing and wincing, crying, hitting, and reactions to others’ speeches. Michael Grandage’s “Hamlet,” enjoying a 12-week run in New York City’s Broadhurst Theatre, satisfies this call and brings the play alive.

Grandage’s production emphasizes the power of the play itself with a minimalist set. The stage, props and lighting are abstract and monochromatic. Sound effects are only mildly applied, like in the beginning as a desolate winter wind greets the audience and immediate sets the tone. As the lights come up dimly, we see the star of the show first—Jude Law as Hamlet. Curled up on the floor and draped in black, Hamlet looks pale as a ghost. He picks himself up and saunters off stage, disappearing just as the guards stride in—perhaps foreshadowing how he follows in his father’s footsteps.

Law himself is sheer genius in this legendary role. He must have perfectly crafted every exquisite gesture. Law speaks so much with his hands and his body movements that it’s abundantly clear he’s about to explode. For example, he hung his head in disgust at Claudius’ speech about fathers, and then keenly recoiled, with his hand over his mouth, when Claudius (played by Kevin McNally) asks Hamlet to call him father.

Then he shares an aesthetically and emotionally beautiful moment with the-King-his-father’s Ghost (Peter Eyre). Once the Ghost appears, Hamlet is physically restrained by three men; but even three-against-one can’t keep him from this reunion—he strikes them to get away. He follows his father into the mist and then, once they’re alone, melts under the Ghost’s intensity. While fog spills over the stage, one solitary beam of piercing white light falls upon the Ghost—barefoot, decrepit, and immensely weary. Hamlet dutifully kneels next to, not in the light of his father, with his back to the audience. In Eyre’s gorgeous bass voice, which reverberates throughout the large theatre even when he whispers, King Hamlet gives a torrid speech revealing Claudius’ treachery. When King Hamlet declares, “Remember me,” he turns remarkably timid and gentle, taking tiny steps toward his son and hesitantly kissing his hand. This, one of the few moments in the play that is heartbreaking for its unrefined tenderness, is further intensified in Law’s body language: his back is arched with misery and longing as he watches his father leave. Law continues to use his body language and his voice to keep us enthralled.

Along with the colorless set design, the actors themselves mostly convey a sense of grim disturbance and heightened tension. They stand apart at distances that were ever-so-slightly exaggerated—planting themselves just a bit further away from each other than one would expect. Moreover, Law makes his movements snap with bitter, even manic energy which could only be soothed by Horatio’s (Matt Ryan) presence. While this made for emotionally riveting theatre, the show was saved from total bleakness by moments of laughter. In one of the most ludicrously funny moments of the production, Law walks on stage, labels Polonius a fishmonger, and proceeds to grab the poor old man and hump him half a dozen times.

He has reason to torment him, though: Polonius was insufferable in this production. From seeing another production of “Hamlet” in Philadelphia with the Lantern Theatre Company, I know that this character has the potential to be likeable. Interestingly, the character is taken to a completely opposite end in the Broadway production. In Philly, Tim Moyer had funny tendencies but inspired sympathy at the same time: his Polonius acts in the attempt to protect his daughter. On the other hand, Ron Cook‘s Polonius is clearly an ambitious, “tedious old fool” who cares not a whit for Ophelia. Moyer’s Polonius tries to maintain respectability, but he is so gullible that he instantly falls into Hamlet’s trap of looking insane. Contrastingly, Cook dutifully humors Hamlet’s moods without seeming too concerned; he’s clearly only in it for the power. Also, the way in which these two actors deliver, “What do you think of me?” distinguishes them. Moyer, after a long pause, softly asks this of the ravenous royals making out while he’s trying to explain the situation between his daughter and their son. In New York, Cook demands an affirmation of his importance, completely deviating from the dire situation between Hamlet and Ophelia.

Gertrude is another character interpreted in unique ways at each theatre. In the Lantern’s Hamlet, Gertrude and Claudius, played by Philadelphia theater veterans Mary Martello and Joe Guzm├ín, make lustful beelines for their exits. At the Broadhurst, their relationship is completely the opposite. Even in the beginning, the two maintained proper British reserve; their occasional hand-holding in public barely suggest at their sexual relationship. The difference is even more exaggerated in the second half of the Broadway production: Gertrude, played by the gorgeous and sophisticated Geraldine James—who looks like a queen even in real life—takes to heart her son’s pleas about it: “throw away the worser part of it, And live the purer with the other half, Good night—but go not to my uncle's bed.” For the rest of the play, she abstains from accepting Claudius’ touch.

The two Hamlets—Geoff Sobelle in Philadelphia—are very similar in their maniacal energy, fits of passion, playful sarcasm and crazy hand gestures. But in other ways, the two actors portray their Hamlet differently. Sobelle’s Hamlet is just a bit wackier—which makes sense considering the actor’s absurdist-comic—as is exemplified in his swinging like a monkey from the bars of the set’s scaffolding. While Law’s activity and clarity of purpose are extraordinarily honed throughout the whole play, Sobelle is impatient and intent only when he is most disturbed: at his father’s ghost’s angry prompting for vengeance and at Ophelia’s funeral. Law, then, distinguishes his character by finding a forceful energy behind his philosophy. That’s why this Broadway uncut production of Shakespeare’s longest play actually felt short. Law’s Hamlet is not simply pondering every single exchange—his mind is rapidly investigating and rallying up his courage.

The magnificent performances all the actors deliver in this production truly bring Shakespeare to life. Under Grandage’s direction, Law especially shines an inspiring light on the philosophical, touching, fatalistic play.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

West Side Story” becomes unstoppable force under writer’s direction

Arthur Laurents, aged 92, directed this Broadway revival of the show he wrote in 1957. Back then, he, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim knew they were taking a risk. Their use of contemporary music raised the bar for dance. It was so radical that some people, favoring tamer shows like The Music Man, hated it at first; but now the bravery of these three men has really paid off.

It’s amazing that Laurents directed this show at his age. It must be exhilarating, coming back to the play he wrote 52 years ago and seeing how much of a difference it has made in millions of people’s lives. And isn’t that the goal of all artists? Not to mention the difference he made in Olivo’s life, which she reveals at the Tonys in her amazing acceptance speech for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.

According to the NY Times, “Joey McKneely recreates the choreography of Jerome Robbins, who conceived the idea for the show and directed it originally.” The original must have been magic: McKneely’s translation absolutely stole the show. This emphasis on choreography shone in the storytelling and character interaction, especially in the introductory scene, with the gangs hunting each other down in packs and dancing in unison; in the “Dance at the Gym” scene with Glad Hand, the administrator, shrieking about abstinence ; and in the ensemble songs, such as “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke.”

“West Side Story,” endeared as a classic in America, appeals to universal audiences as well. The 20th century music and societal issues lend themselves well to this ancient romance story. According to an article published in the LA Times last February, “The show, powered by timeless numbers like ‘Maria,’ ‘Tonight’ and ‘Somewhere,’ changed the face of American musical theater; it introduced subjects like murder, racism, gang violence and attempted rape into a genre accustomed to more genteel subjects.”

Our class had the great honor of attending a talkback with some of the cast. We heard from Michael Mastro (Glad Hand), Eric Hatch (Action, understudy), Haley Carlucci (Maria, understudy), Matt Cavenaugh (Tony), Ryan Steele (Baby John), and George Akram (Bernardo).

Carlucci told us she’d done more than 30 shows, and you could tell that she’s had that much experience: fresh, light, and realistic, playful yet womanly, she really stood out in this production.

Mastro told us that their production once integrated much more Spanish. He joked that Yankees who don’t speak Spanish are used to hearing it often and not understanding it, but audience members from Tennessee and such places where Spanish-speakers are not as common were complaining. Now the goal is to put Spanish in where the scenes will still make sense to non-speakers while also keeping up the symbolism. For example, in the first half of the show Anita—played by the dynamic Karen Olivo, the brilliant woman whom I utterly heroine-worship now—doesn’t speak a word of Spanish because she wants to integrate into American society; by the end of the play, with her boyfriend murdered and her community falling apart, she speaks nothing but Spanish. Maria sings “I Feel Pretty” in Spanish but when speaking sticks firmly to English—now that she’s fallen in love with an American boy.

We were told that Arthur is heavily involved in many projects. He’s “got a lot of energy,” one of the actors said. Indeed, energy was the theme of our talkback. Asked if eight performances a week are draining, one actor responded that it’s such an honor to do this show that it’s okay if you go three weeks without a day off. Hatch told us that he plays a different role every time he goes on stage—and while some may find this excruciating, to him it’s stimulating. Matt then pointed out that Broadway’s a marathon, not a sprint. The actors need stamina, and they need the energy audiences bring to the show.

Speaking of energy: while the women in this play are dynamic, round characters, the men stay the same. For example, Tony doesn’t change; he only falls in love. He proves himself prone to testosterone-fueled viciousness: sorrow turns to vengeance and murder. Meanwhile, Anita gets over her sorrow, even finding a kind of sharp beauty in it because it all comes from her love.

But perhaps that’s being unfair. Perhaps if Tony had been pulled into a one-on-one situation instead of the overwhelming groupthink environment of a rumble then he would’ve made the right decision. After all, Anita isn’t infallible, either. When she went to deliver the message to Tony that Maria was waiting for him—even though she despised him for killing her beloved Bernardo, she agreed to do this in the name of love—she changes her mind and tells a lie she knows will break Tony’s heart.

Still, she demonstrates that she’s stronger than any of those men: she walks completely alone into the Jets’ den, fields their verbal insults and ignores their aggression. But then, the boys gang up on her and hold her down while one jumps on her and prepares to rape her. One of the most profound moments in the play is when, once the Doc comes and halts the gangbanging, Anita finally picks herself up and hauntingly proclaims, “Bernardo was right. If one of you was bleeding in the street, I’d walk past you and spit on you.”

Then, in another of the most poignant moments in this play, Maria proves that even as she goes wild in grief—weeping and screaming, “You ALL killed him…with hate! Well, I can kill now too, because now I have hate”—she still can’t bring herself to kill. The difference between the destructive gang mentality and the individual’s liberty to choose life and love manifests in Maria’s choice. She doesn’t commit violence like the men or suicide like Juliet; she only demands of a Jet boy to bring her black shawl over to her, and then she mourns her love quietly.

Considering how much wiser the females are it’s unbelievable that the male characters still constantly dismiss them throughout the play. Anybodys, played by Sara Dobbs, provided one recurring reminder of this. She was a tough cookie but was never allowed to play with the big boys, even though they knew she was perfectly capable of their foolishness. Then, on a more obvious level, Anita’s boyfriend Bernardo shuts her down in their arguments by saying things like, “¿Vamos or no vamos?” when she’s trying to talk sense to him. Another example comes in the form of the appropriately named Hotsie, played by the striking Marina Lazzaretto. Riff tells her to get out of the pharmacy—with a slap in the rear—because she’s not welcome in the room when real business is going down.

Another inherent lesson was something one of the Jet boys declared to Office Krupke. The line stood out, despite the fast pace of the scene. It was something like, “We’re only hoodlums to you because we don’t act like you think we should.” This protestation, reinforced later with the hilarious song, “Gee, Officer Krupke,” shows how even within the same culture, different people have different values and beliefs. That’s why small communities have problems, too, even those which don’t have to worry about immigration, economic competition and racism.

The dream sequence was the only moment of happiness and gentleness in the second half of the play. The only taste of peace was an illusion: a hard-hitting realization which the beautiful chorus and brilliantly designed light sequence really brought home. Not to mention, the substitution of those pervasive purple and orange gang colors with blue and white—symbols of purity and unity—and green and brown—signifying nature and utopia—brought me to a heightened sense of aestheticism even as my heart grew heavy with sadness and empathy.

This production of “West Side Story” really did the whole legend justice. The ending was very dark: everything that came after the rumble was morbid, violent and saturated with fear. Laurents didn’t try to wrap it up with some epilogue falsely promising peace or unity. It’s all the more somber for this reason: these issues of racism, violence, misunderstanding and sexual abuse are still all too prevalent today.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Pillowman: heartfelt, horrific and fascinating

I took my seat in the Yvonne Theatre apprehending the worst and bracing myself for gut-wrenching carnage. While I was prepared to appreciate “The Pillowman” for its thoughtfulness and honesty, after all I heard about its violence and darkness I wasn’t expecting to really like it. However, I found myself walking out of the theatre realizing that Rider University’s daring production of Martin McDonagh’s six-year-old play was actually, strangely, beautiful.

Under the careful direction of Professor Miriam Mills, the production was judicious in the way it approached gruesome subjects. The heart of the play is still perfectly intact; an important lesson—the tragic consequences of abusing children—is still brutally conveyed. Any audience member with a soul walks away with this warning ringing loudly in both ears, along with the gunshot forewarned in the beginning by the overhead voice asking us to turn off our cell phones.

The play wasn’t so nightmarish in its proportions thanks to how often the tension was cut with biting, grim humor. Most of the comic relief came from the good cop/bad cop routine, where Detectives Tupolski (returning veteran Kevin Feehery) and Ariel (sophomore Justin Kelly) manipulated the prisoner’s high-strung fear for their own mirth; the intolerant egotism in each man was uncomfortably funny. It makes you wonder at the hands holding the reins of your own justice system.

This thought-provoking aspect was most important in “The Pillowman.” It engaged us in judgment of the characters, their backgrounds and their current states of being. “The Pillowman” left it up to us to decide, in spite of all the appalling things the characters did, whether they deserve forgiveness and understanding. Then again, as Detective Tupolski said, “I’m tired of everyone using their shitty childhoods to justify their shitty behavior.”

This begs the yet-unresolved question: as much as we would like to claim agency, are we just products of our childhood conditioning? Certainly this seems to be true in the case of the horrific experimental background of the protagonist, Katurian (freshman David Spadora), and his mentally shattered brother, Michal (junior Tommy Butler).

I had already formed misgivings before the play even started: I wondered how any good man could voluntarily create fiction with the worst kind of cruelty towards children. However, initial disgust gave way to immense sympathy and despair—followed closely by morbid curiosity—for Katurian as he fiercely protected his brother and took justice into his own hands.

Spadora must have been emotionally wrecked rehearsing this role these past several weeks. His performance as Katurian required grave intensity. He shook in fear and cried out constantly, not to mention his nervous, jerky body movements and wincing facial expressions. He is only strong when he is in his essence: telling transfixing, twisted—and, as Michal stated, “not so far-fetched”—stories.

While the plotline revelations were slow in coming, the play was never boring. Its pace was quite fitting, in fact: it gave the audience time to digest each tragic detail before moving on to the next. Meanwhile, the fates of the characters are foreshadowed heavily, so the audience actually becomes more engrossed with the secrets of the past.

Additionally, the mysterious set indicated the play’s tone well before the actors even took the stage. The green-gray, thick, blocked off walls of the interrogation chamber evoked a slight nausea to complement the feeling of confinement. The lonely filing cabinet shared one wall with a lonely wastepaper basket, placed beside three unyielding metal chairs. The dim, sparse yellow lights completed the stark effect.

In a pre-production discussion, Mills revealed her worry that the shock factor of seeing obscenities acted out before our eyes might overwhelm our senses so that we wouldn’t see the dynamic quality of the acting. On the contrary, I felt the viciousness and tenderness of the actors’ performances much more so than I felt disturbed by the action itself. Like in ancient Greek theater, relentless characters, not spectacle, brought these horrors home.

To illustrate: one of the most gripping parts in the play comes when Michal simply tells his brother the whole truth. Michal’s confession is innocent and remorseless; the eerie incongruity leaves you caught between disgust and pity at his wholesomeness. If the director had chosen to show these acts graphically, the already-hidden beauty in the play, exemplified through the paradoxically guilty and blameless Michal, might have been further obscured.

Michal doesn’t completely grasp the concept of guilt for others’ suffering. However, as Katurian mutters to himself over and over, “it’s not your fault, Michal.” Michal’s endearing, dreadful simplicity punches you in the gut—so much you start to wonder at yourself: dare you feel sympathy and compassion for the one who committed such atrocities?

Still, “The Pillowman” wasn’t as defined by revulsion and horror as the hype made it out to be. This enthralling, imaginative tragedy challenges the preconceptions we carry with us and even incorporates a delicate, heartbreaking twist.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

McCarter’s Twelfth Night is lively, luscious and laugh-out-loud funny

Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s comedy about gender roles, sexual identity and love, thrives as his most often-produced play today for one main reason: it is extraordinarily flexible. Unlike other plays in which staying true to the script’s message hardly allows for artistic license, “Twelfth Night” leaves so much up to interpretation. In McCarter theatre’s production of this ambiguous play, director Rebecca Taichman’s unique interpretation is of visual majesty, exaggerated drama and hilarious exchanges between the characters.

The opening scene alone demonstrates this, as it is entirely made up for this production. In the play itself, Duke Orsinos’ “If music be the food of love, play on” releases the first bit of drama. However, Taichman decides to open McCarter’s production with a short original scene linking together the two female protagonists. Viola (played by Rebecca Brooksher, who also becomes Cesario) hangs from the stage’s ceiling, slowly winding her body as if she is under the tempestuous water and struggling to not drown—a rippling blue screen and murky lights create the beautiful ocean effect. Olivia (played by Veanne Cox) slowly walks from stage right to left in a long, elaborate black gown, mourning the death of her brother and looking as if she’s struggling to not drown in her grief.

The set also perfectly manifests the nature of this unbalanced play: the back wall is actually a slope on stage right, elevating towards the center where it resolves itself into a wall with a large arch, from which actors enter and exit rooms in the households of Olivia and Orsino (Christopher Innvar). Orsino’s chambers are decorated with three hanging posters of the same obscure ancient sculptures which look as though they’re just a moment away from kissing. Besides acting as a metaphor for his state of longing, these posters help designate when the plotline switches location between scenes.

In order to ease any confusion, the production makes it immediately clear who loves whom. While soliloquies clue the audience in for every update, rose petals are also dropped on or thrown on every enamored character at the moment he or she falls in love.

Throughout the play, in fact, roses are used as motifs and as designs to give the audience hints as to the message behind it all. For example, the fourth wall is practically broken with Maria’s (played by Nancy Robinette) metacognitive command, “get behind that rose…thing,” indicating a poster hanging from the ceiling. In the next hilarious moment, the three men—Sir Toby (Rick Foucheux), Sir Andrew (Tom Story) and Fabian (J. Fred Shiffman)—eavesdropping on Malvolio (Ted van Griethuysen) take out three smaller canvas posters with the same rose photograph, which act as absurdly obvious hiding places.

In fact, this whole scene is one of the funniest in the production, and the one that could be labeled a farce. Andrew, characterized by his flamboyant attire and high-strung voice, drops Olivia’s pretend letter next to Malvolio, then screams out the answer to the riddle and hides again behind the poster. Much to the audience’s delight, these posters are ridiculous as well, since they only cover the men from the waist up.

Taichman chose to keep up the rose motif with another original, unwritten sequence right before the intermission: Olivia enters in a shockingly bright green gown, luxuriously tears the clip out of her hair and tosses her head around. As she belts out a high-pitched, wordless note, the lights suddenly explode into vivid emerald green. At that very second, three huge posters of the same rose photograph fall down and become the walls of the set. Olivia lifts up her arms and twirls around, singing all along, and thousands of glamorous red rose petals fall from the ceiling onto her hair, her arms, her dress and the floor. This stunning visual and audio spectacle is only one of many in this larger-than-life production.

Another extravaganza pulls the audience back into the play after intermission with a woman singing opera, Feste (Stephen DeRosa) playing the clarinet, and two women in red dancing a derivative of the tango. This mini-scene is also an addition by the director’s creative license, shown when the musicians and dancers flee as Cesario enters, heralding the scripted beginning of the scene.

After the intermission, all of Olivia’s attendants, who were dressed in black along with her, are now dressed in sexy, bright red gowns. Olivia herself soon changes into a light pink gown with the same enthralling, elegant design as the green one; and just like last time, at the moment she enters, the once-green lights change to the same shade of pink. They do the same thing when she changes into other identical gowns of different colors.

One particularly funny exchange between Cesario and Olivia cleverly manifests the director’s vision. As the characters rush through their dialogue, desperate just to get through to one another, they both try to get on a deeper—a lower—level. Cesario continuously prostrates himself in a pleading effort, and in response Olivia bends further, lowering herself to make eye contact with the one she adores, until finally they both lie flat on the ground in sincerity.

Another unwritten tango in between a scene displays two women as partners and two men who dance and kiss at the end of the tango, exhibiting the homosexual undertones in the play. This undertone becomes even more obvious in the very last scene: after everyone finally learns the true identities of Cesario/Viola and her twin, Sebastian (played by Kevin Isola), Orsino tries to restrain himself from embracing her. He declares “let me see thee in thy woman’s weeds,” but ultimately charges at her, and they end up making out on the ground while Viola is still dressed as Cesario.

The only gloomy element in this play comes from the part of Malvolio. During the scene of his imprisonment and at the end, when he declares he will take revenge for how he was “notoriously abus’d,” the audience is left with a choice: while some may feel pity and sense that the entire mood is brought down, other audience members just laugh, albeit darkly. Two very different acting styles are juxtaposed against each other when Feste, who pretends to be a Christian parson named Sir Topaz, plays with Malvolio. The jester frolics, laughs and sings, playfully claiming that the only darkness is ignorance. Meanwhile Malvolio, shut up in a cramped, pitch-black cage, is in a tragic circumstance: he begs for light, for a pen and paper, and ultimately for justice. Taichman left this a paradox, allowing the conscience of each audience member to decide the outcome of this strange character’s fate.

Overall, this production felt like an overwhelming, lavish, high-class buffet. Aesthetically, it was incredible: the visual effects, the orchestra, and the songs by the characters themselves were all beautiful. Finally, the characters’ antics were abundantly expressive not only for the dramatic effect—to bring Shakespeare’s lines to life—but also for comedic effect.

Here's the handy map included in the playbill.
Here's the McCarter blog, which offers hours of interesting, enlightening reading.