The gorgeous plurality of being human: Az Rep's 'Twelfth Night'
A beautifully mounted, intelligently directed, energetically acted production of "Twelfth Night," Shakespeare's beloved social and romantic comedy of mistaken identities and gender-bending transvestism, has opened for a three-week run at Arizona Repertory Theatre.
The vast resources of the University of Arizona's theatre and Brent Gibbs' extensive experience with the material — this is the seventeenth (!) time he has directed Shakespeare for Arizona Rep — induce this production's designers and cast to take us on a little tour of some of the classic moments in the play's performance history, certainly a worthwhile (if barely acknowledged) project for a company of this sort to undertake.
Let's begin with the doors.
In a sense, the play is about doors and the access to households, power, and romance they both instance and symbolize — and thus doors have become, ever since "Twelfth Night"'s earliest performances on various Elizabethan stages, "the locus not only of the play's busy onstage traffic but of references, gestures and jokes within the dialogue" (Shakespearean editor Keir Elam).
Scenic designer Andrea Platt's set is composed primarily of a series of doors of various shapes and sizes cut into high flats angling around the back and side walls of the stage. Through them, actors and set pieces constantly come and go and scenes change rapidly, efficiently, and recognizably.
My favorites among the various comings and goings were the shipwrecked Viola (Tyler Reaser), Sebastian (Adam Grodman), and Antonio (Brett Parker Dixon)'s initial entrances sliding down a ramp and through a door at the back of the stage, the rock-band instruments rolling on and off the set via a chute downstage right, and Olivia (Vinessa Vidotto) glimpsed chasing Viola (as the cross-dressing Cesario) past the garden door.
Thus the scenic design cleverly acknowledges the "particularly important discursive role" played by "virtual" and "actual" doors (Elam again) in the performance history of the comedy — as it also reminds us that, in a sense, all theatrical performance can be construed as what happens during as well as in-between entrances and exits.
Moreover, as Platt acknowledges on the production's digital dramaturgy page, the "blank walls" into which the doors are carved suit well the director's conception of "Illyria," the comedy's location, as "placeless," that is, not the Balkan peninsula but, as Elam characterizes this traditional approach to staging the play, "a no-place that could be any place, . . . an alibi, an 'elsewhere'" upon which "audiences and directors project their own mental sets."
In this instance, this "elsewhere" is, as the dramaturgy page explains, an eccentric mix of "architecture styles and details from many different eras," a studied eclecticism which, ever since early twentieth-century modernist experiments in London and Paris with non-realistic sets on nearly naked stages, has been another significant aspect of the performance history of this much produced play.
This setting is also, as the production's dramaturg, Allison Knuth, tells us in the program, "timeless," connected to the Twelfth Night of Epiphany and Elizabethan England only by "the topsy-turvy world of misrule" with which the religious festival was once celebrated. This is also a familiar trope in the play's performance history, configured here, as it commonly has been, as a melange of high and low scenic, costume, and sound designs and as a miscellany of dramatic genres and acting styles.
Now, before I go on, let me say this.
Although there are alternative traditions of staging this play which might seem appropriate for a university theater — notably, ideologically-driven productions set in actual times and places (for example, Autumn in Civil-War England) — this placeless and timeless "Illyrian" (as they style it in Shakespeare studies) production is obviously more audience-friendly and more appropriate to the skills and experiences of the student repertory company from which this cast is drawn.
Indeed, in a very practical sense, Gibbs has no choice but to opt for the timeless and the placeless, and, in most respects, he has made a real virtue of this necessity.
The Food of Love
This most musical of Shakespeare's plays famously begins with the line "If music be the food of love, play on," the first of many textual references to instrumental music and singing, including the lyrics to (depending on how you count them) at least six songs meant to be sung during the show.
In this production, the instrumentation is primarily stringed, ranging from lute to bass guitar, and, except in the rock trio, where his keyboard playing is joined by Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Connor Griffin)'s on drums and Sir Toby Belch (Kasey Caruso)'s on bass, the vocals are handled, as they traditionally are in "Twelfth Night," by Feste the Clown (John Dunn).
Dunn is an accomplished musician, comfortable with playing and singing in the variety of acoustic and electronic styles this Illyrian production requires. I especially liked the rock band's slightly grungy, athletically guttural version of "O mistress mine," and Dunn's sweetly moving, lute-accompanied rendering of the closing ballad and its lovely "For it raineth every day" refrain.
Gibbs is very good with comic timing and stage business. He knows how to pay close attention to the little things: Sir Andrew's finger stuck in the bottle, Viola walking across the dining-room table, the beer in the ice chest, Sir Andrew and Sir Toby hurriedly stubbing their joints in the potted plants.
And he's up to the challenge of the great comic scenes in the middle of the play: the three conspirators hiding in the box tree while the steward Malvolio (Alec Michael Coles) reads the letter Maria (Dominique Ruffalo) has concocted and Malvolio's yellow-cross-garters encounter with Olivia.
The latter is buttocks-baringly frisky and audience-squealingly funny in this iteration. The former is a comic tour de force of somatic engineering and split-second timing as three very differently sized bodies — Sir Andrew, Sir Tobey, and Fabian (Thomas Tyler West), disguised as branches — scramble to occupy three increasingly smaller cubicles in the box tree.
Casting and Compensating
Of course, you have to make allowances for age-appropriate casting in university theaters. In this production most of the cast members are playing outside their generational cohort and they compensate, more or less successfully, in various ways. Let me give just two examples.
Olivia (Vinessa Vidotto), traditionally portrayed as an aging ingenue, in deep mourning for her dead brother, is a wealthy aristocratic heiress in charge of a large and important household.
In the play-text, she has a certain kind of melancholic gravitas, abruptly and comically shed when she meets Viola/Cesario. The not-so-latent eroticism beneath this grieving exterior is nicely captured by Patrick Holt's costume design: elaborately layered, vaguely Gothy, gauzy-black widow weeds that are, from certain angles, enticingly see-through.
Now, Vidotto wears these clothes well, her eager, muscular pursuit of the less physically imposing Reasor is interesting and funny, and her height and deepened, slightly accented voice help to indicate her age and rank. Yet I wish she would explore more of the (admittedly harder to play) depressive end of the bipolar spectrum — her constant resorting to angry irritability when she isn't chasing Cesario may reinforce rank and strength but, in going against the script's explicit and frequent references to her "melancholy," undercuts the character's emotional and hierarchical association with the similarly grieving and melancholic Duke (Colt Watkiss).
Sir Andrew Aguecheek, "an arriviste in social drag," an "aspiring dandy" who is (hopelessly) courting Olivia, is usually played by a middle-aged actor, tall and very thin, emaciated and attenuated, a kind of gaunt grotesque, a cowardly, impotent carouser whose lank hair, Sir Toby sneers, "hangs like flax on a distaff."
Now, Griffin looks nothing like that, but he is obviously comfortable in the role and with the choices he has made. His voice is in his natural register, he speaks the production's (nominally) unaccented speech clearly and understandably, he moves gracefully with the blocking and the stage business, in each scene he knows why he's there and where he's going — and thus emerges, somewhat unexpectedly (although there is precedent for this in the play's performance history), as the center of much of the comic action.
I could go on, but I won't. These are all well-trained, serious young actors giving energetic and thoughtful performances, advised and supported by a highly competent faculty of theater professionals. If their voices are sometimes a little muddy, if they race through some of the lines at a breakneck pace, it's probably because this is a comedy after all, with lots of physical action (which they handle gracefully and effortlessly), and the director must have been saying "Faster, louder, funnier" constantly throughout tech week.
We're almost done: just two nitpicks, a disclosure, and a (brief) conclusion.
There seems to be some sort of disconnect for this show between the front of the house and the artistic designers. To wit.
Nit 1. The press releases and other media advertising were fairly aggressive in presenting this "Twelfth Night" as (in big red letters) "G-O-T-H," but, except for a few of the costumes and the setting of the dungeon-like "Dark room" scene, it isn't.
You could see how this punk rock subculture's associations with the perversely monstrous might work well for a mistaken-identity, cross-dressing, gender-bending theatrical comedy — and there have been a few such stagings recently in the U.S. and Britain, most notably in a gay-rights themed production at Access Theater in Tribeca (NYC) in June 2013 and last month at the National Theater in London. But, despite the rather high visibility of Arizona Rep's ad campaign, you won't see it here.
Nit 2. The show image for this production — in the press kit and on the front of the Program — is a black mustache above a red lipstick impression, a conventional image for a play in which, as the Brits say, women have "trouser roles" — of which "Twelfth Night" is probably the most produced and most influential example in the English language and for which, traditionally, Viola puts on a mustache when she is posing as Cesario.
Except, despite the use of the familiar iconography, in this show Viola/Cesario doesn't wipe off her thick red lipstick (she doesn't have any to begin with) and she doesn't paste on a mustache. For that matter, she doesn't lower the pitch of her voice either: just pulls on some pantaloons and ties back her hair.
But perhaps this isn't such a a radical disconnect after all. Maybe, some 400 years after the first performances of "Twelfth Night," we can still see what audiences have always seen: that the lipstick and the mustache reveal as much as they conceal — as if there really isn't any fundamental difference between Viola and Cesario, as if gender, identity, and appearance really are just social constructs, as if what makes us singular is in the gorgeous plurality of being human.
Disclosure. I'm recently retired from the UA, a professor of English who occasionally taught drama (but not in the Theater program) and performed once more than a dozen years ago with Arizona Rep. As far as I know, nobody I worked with then is associated with this show, although I've acted elsewhere with David Morden, its voice and text coach.
To conclude. Go see this "Twelfth Night": it's funny, it's accessible, it's full of stage action and theater history; it's sumptuously designed, vigorously acted, smartly directed; and it's exactly the kind of thing a university theater should be doing with its vast resources.