Sixth Night – Getting Shakespeare Half Right

Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies, gets a middling reading by The Seeing Place Theatre. The cast, under the direction of Brandon Walker (who also plays Malvolio), has internalized the story of this play well through long improvisational study of the script. As a result, the actors are comfortable with most of their scenes and present the text intelligently in a conversational tone and with an easy manner. However, as promising as this seemed in the first moments of the presentation, the lack of conceptual clarity and purpose, and of a directorial vision, paired with a glacial pace (the play took three hours, with a ten-minute intermission), soon defeated the good beginning.

Twelfth Night is one of the identity-confusing, sibling-lost-at-sea, misdirected affection plays of Shakespeare’s that seem to have been the Renaissance equivalent of the soap-opera. Here these tropes are conjugated in two main plots: 1. Count Orsino (David Sedgwick) loves Olivia (Anna Marie Sell) who loves Cesario, who is really Viola (Lindsay Teed) in disguise. Viola loves Orsino but serves him disguised as a man so she has to conceal her affection; 2. Olivia’s steward Malvolio loves her, and she is also pursued by Andrew Aguecheek (Nathan Ramos), a minor nobleman recruited as a suitor by Sir Toby Belch (Jorge Hoyos), Olivia’s relative who loves and eventually marries Maria (Erin Cronican), Olivia’s maid. The free agent in this brew is Feste (David Arthur Bacharach), Olivia’s clown, who provides comic by-play, songs, and the occasional stirring of the pot for our and his own amusement. Oh, and did I mention that Viola and her identical twin-brother Sebastian were shipwrecked and think each other drowned?

A further subplot concerns the dislike and disapproval of Sir Toby Belch by Olivia’s Stewart Malvolio, and the cruel practical joke Belch, Aguecheek, Maria and Feste play on Malvolio.

As is often the case with shoestring Shakespeare, the setting and historical timeframe is left vague in this production, in a kind of near-contemporary eclecticism. This is too bad, because a more stringent adherence to a historical time might have forced more specific choices of design and behavior. The play unfolds on a cluttered stage, in lighting that in many scenes is murky, leaving actors in unintended shadows.

The actors' behavior is sometimes as murky as the lighting. For instance, Olivia, deep in mourning, is presented on a deck chair showing much leg and cleavage (through under black lacy undergarments) and pulls the money she gives to Cesario out of her bra. Malvolio struts about with his hand in his pocket, more cock-of-the-walk than stern butler. Aguecheek seems to be in an entirely different play and sounds as if he has memorized a foreign language phonetically, and the drunk Toby Belch moves in and out of drunkenness at will. Feste, a role difficult to make truly humorous in a modern setting, has a pleasant voice, and the final song particularly (he also accompanies himself ably on an electric keyboard) is affecting. But the song (and music) choices do nothing to locate the play either historically or culturally.

The most satisfying scenes are those involving the main players: Orsino, Viola (who delivers the confusions and pain of her longings well), and Olivia, who, once past her sluttish phase, gives her character dignity and strength. Here the mostly psychological approach works because the scenes do not rely on outdated comedic conventions and stock characters, as is the case in the secondary plot.

Brandon Walker, as Malvolio, shows talent as an actor, but as a director he may have been handicapped by the split focus, and by choosing a rehearsal method that works against a strong conceptualization. Shakespeare, I find, often seems accessible enough but turns out to be difficult both in his structural complexities and in the challenge of bringing his work into a present-day form that is compelling. This production would be helped greatly by a more energetic delivery and by a rethinking of the power and class structure of the play.

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