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.