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Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night

Presented by the Public Theatre at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, June 10--July 12, 2009; directed by Daniel Sullivan; sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Jane Greenwood; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; music by Hem; fight director, Rick Sordelet; choreography by Mimi Lieber. With Raul Esparza (Orsino), Herb Foster (Valentine), Anne Hathaway (Viola),Jay O. Sanders (Sir Toby Belch), Julie White (Maria), Hamish Linklater (Andrew Aguecheek), David Pittu (Feste), Audra McDonald (Olivia), Michael Cumpsty (Malvolio), Charles Borland (Antonio), Stark Sands (Sebastian), and Jon Patrick Walker (Fabian).

Twelfth Night

Presented by Shakespeare and Company in the Founders' Theatre, Lenox, Massachusetts, July 24--September 6, 2009; directed by Jonathan Croy; sets by Jonathan Croy; costumes by Govane Lohbauer; lighting by Les Dickert; music by Robert Biggs, Bill Barclay and Alexander Sovronksy. With Robert Biggs (Feste), Ken Cheeseman (Malvolio), Johnny Lee Davenport (Antonio, Valentine), Nigel Gore (Sir Toby Belch), Merritt Janson (Viola), Corinna May (Maria), Elizabeth Raetz (Olivia), Duane Allen Robinson (Orsino), Alexander Sovronsky (Fabian), Jake Waid (Sebastian), and Ryan Winkles (Sir Andrew Aguecheek).

Twelfth Night is driven by crushes of multiple varieties. Whimsical fantasies, extravagant indulgences, but especially crushes of the most painful kind that hit unawares and prove all-consuming. Because the play is a romantic comedy, the crushes have a way of working out, at least for the so-called "upstairs" characters, but they do so in a particular way. The crushes ultimately prove transformational, ending in forms of self-discovery, awakening, indeed illumination of a general nature. The sorting out of mix-ups and the clarification of mistaken identities get accompanied by the ineffable sense that the characters have, to use a metaphor common to the play and the modern rehearsal room, gone on meaningful journeys. If all this sounds a little too much like the stuff of pulpy romances and Hollywood chick-flicks, one could suggest that these genres have inherited their material to an important degree from Shakespearean comedy.

Which is why it was a brilliant choice by the New York Shakespeare Festival to cast the film actress Anne Hathaway as Viola in its lively and cheerful summer 2009 production of Twelfth Night. At the simplest level, she's the perfect physical type for the role, as she can be at once boyishly dorky and stunningly beautiful. But these physical characteristics have as much to do with the cinematic persona that has developed from playing heroines in coming-of-age stories in which, generally, romance is accompanied by self-discovery and radical transformation. In The Princess Diaries (2001), she plays a gawky teen who learns that she's actually the princess of a fictitious country and, under the tutelage of her royal grandmother (played to comic perfection by Julie Andrews), becomes the swan no one could have imagined, all the while discovering that her true heartthrob is none other than the boy-next-door type she has known all along. Analogously, in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), she's the raggedly dressed and androgynously named Andy Sachs who lands a job in the fashion industry in New York where her dress size--8!--becomes a moniker indicating how distressingly "fat" she is; but true to the genre, she undergoes a fashion makeover (under the tutelage this time of her demonic boss, played by Meryl Streep) that also opens up a whole new way of living. Once again, however, a fling with a new love interest (a hunk of a fashion writer played by Simon Baker) ensues, but she goes back, in the end, to the guy who loved her when she didn't think anything of wearing sweatpants. The film could have been called Sachs, or even Saks, and the City. Finally, in Becoming Jane (2007), she plays a young Jane Austen who discovers love and its entanglements, which then inspire her to write Pride and Prejudice. The romance fines of the films obviously don't mesh entirely with Violas story, but other elements clearly do: taking on new personas that expose hidden elements of the self and open up new emotional and erotic possibilities; experiencing love with new enlightenment; and provoking crushes--not only in other characters but in audiences as well.

Certainly the reviewer for The New York Times (Charles Isherwood) was smitten by the whole package, noting early and often (as I did, I confess) how "on screen or onstage" the "gamine" Anne Hathaway "possesses the unmistakable glow of a natural star" and "how lovely she looks in male disguise" and how the "freshness of her beauty"--which even the scowling she displayed in Rachel Getting Married (2008) couldn't hide-made her look, in her "smart, brass-buttoned, blue military jacket," "like a young duke who has stepped boldly forth from a classic British portrait [of the nineteenth century], a bright pink bloom on his pallid cheek."

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Isherwood's swooning descriptions are, nonetheless, accurate indexes of the reactions that Viola provokes and that the production highlighted. One thinks most obviously of Olivia, who was played by the Broadway star Audra McDonald with exuberant humor and a full, vibrant palette of emotional coloration. McDonald's Olivia began the play in a state of high-strung mourning characterized by dramatic gestures of desperation (clinging to Feste and then pushing him away to regain control as she mourns her brother in an extrapolated set-up to 1.5).

However, under Viola's spell, or "enchantment," Olivia became transformed, intoxicated utterly--especially erotically--by those qualities Isherwood noted in detail, but also others that became apparent even in the early scenes: not just the luminous beauty combined with boyish charm, but also an emotional richness and depth that Viola displayed more openly from her first entrance, wet and distraught from the shipwreck and loss of her brother. McDonald brought out the sensuous energy and the awakened liberation suggested by Olivia's words with infectious abandon, as when she enumerates the features that confirm Cesario's status as a gentleman: "Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions, and spirit / Do give thee fivefold blazon." At times Olivia even became voracious and grabby, enjoying being overtaken by delicious impulse; at one point she simply overpowered Viola/Cesario and planted a long kiss on her tips, from which Viola fought herself loose by pushing inadvertently against Olivia's breasts, which gesture Olivia took with wide-eyed eagerness as a willing return of her advances. All the while, nonetheless, Olivia also exhibited ample signs of someone who felt overmastered inside by not just the sudden but also the enduring and surprisingly powerful nature of the passion.

Raul Esparza's Orsino, while primarily focused on Olivia until the final act, also displayed signs, however, of experiencing a crush on Viola/ Cesario that crept in with subtle stealth at his eyes. Esparza played Orsino with wry irony of the kind that recalled the self-conscious commentary of Brechtian, alienated performance. One felt that he was sometimes winking beneath the languorous drawl and all the posturing that began from his first entrance; indeed, his abrupt command to stop the music in his first monologue--"Enough, no more"--elicited a huge burst of laughter from the audience because the little eruption of fickle peeve seemed so appropriate for such an endearingly moody poser. Orsino did also have moments when his passion for Olivia came across as deeply felt: "If ever thou shalt love, / In the sweet pangs of it remember me." However, it also became apparent from early on ("Diana's lip / Is not more smooth and rubious") that he was, in the language of the play, surprised--seized unexpectedly--by Viola/Cesario. In fact, the duologue with Viola in 2.4, in which she famously recounts the story of her "sister," became a kind of love duet animated by and resonating with hidden desires and thwarted longings on both sides. Of course this twist is not unique to this production, but it had a freshness that had partly to do with the sense that a certain clarity about his feelings was potentially dawning on the fancy-mongering Orsino.

The character whose emotional journey evinced the most signs of growth and discovery still remained Viola, however, and her story held its central place in the plot. I should note that the ensemble work of the very talented cast was first-rate and the modesty of Anne Hathaway's performance helped it fit seamlessly into the whole. Given the continually shifting center of interest and the rapidly alternating rhythm of this wonderfully crafted play, this was especially important. Nonetheless, unassuming as her performance was, it was still a star turn, though in the best sense of the term. First, she worked with the verse quite well and did not show herself to be out of her depth (unlike many Hollywood stars who take embarrassing stabs at Shakespeare both on screen and onstage); nor did she succumb to the temptation to reduce the music of the language to sit-corn pitch (though of course occasional drops in register to that level can be very funny). Her knack for physical comedy (glimpsed only briefly in Get Smart [2008]) also enabled her to jump, literally, into her role and get a little dirty. But most of all, what she was able to do was enter fully into the magical world of Illyria while bringing along, with big-screen brightness, the lively emotional intrigue and the sense of distressed but formative adventuring that form the emotional core of Hollywood romances and urban chick flicks. In disguise, her Viola was clearly experiencing feelings she had never known before; even the throwaway revelation--"Whoe'er I woo, myself would be his wife"--had the sustained emotional pull of a revelatory close-up moment on screen. When Feste sang "Come Away Death," she joined in, adding a new emotional color to the song with her lilting contralto. And as the adventures mounted and spun out of control, with Olivia pouncing with devouring hunger and Aguecheek flailing away wildly with his sword, Viola became very much the tested heroine of comic romance whose history, if a blank before, was now definitively being written. Indeed, in disguise a new self was being formed and defined by wholly new adventures and emotional capacities; in experiencing and articulating the pining melancholy of her "sister," Viola was also giving voice to a new person coming into being.

The production's final scene (reminiscent of Trevor Nunn's film of the play [1996]) was staged after all the ecstatic and giddy revelations and discoveries as a kind of coming-out celebration for this new self, as Viola emerged in her "maid's garments" (a resplendent, gauzy number) and led a dance and joined the singing of the epilogue song. Two characters who end up empty-handed--Malvolio and Sir Andrew--were serenaded offstage, again a la Trevor Nunn but with a much softer touch. Malvolio had earlier stormed offstage, but he appeared more chastened than menacingly bent on revenge. C. L. Barber would have loved this production, especially the sense that somehow, through festive and delirious release, clarity had set in. The darker elements that have often been emphasized in productions of the past generation were gently smoothed away. Indeed, the play was set in an idyllic green world with two rolling hillocks flanking a grass-carpeted stage and with the trees of Central Park itself as the backdrop. This was the perfect setting for this production, a pastoral enclave of heightened and joyous possibilities where crushes work out and where, just a few city blocks down, the Devil can be found wearing Prada.

Interestingly, this production shared elements with another production of the play this summer at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. Perhaps even more so than the Central Park interpretation, this Twelfth Night was driven by a festive spirit of comic generosity. Once again Viola, played with sparkling energy and disarming vulnerability by Merritt Janson, occupied the emotional center of the production, and scrambled and clawed her way through the swirling madness and the emotional whirlwinds of the play. Elizabeth Raetz's Olivia was likewise transformed from a dignified countess in mourning to an aroused and preposterously determined "cougar." It is hard to recall another Olivia who offered as many fresh line readings with such a comic touch. In her first encounter with Viola, for example, she asked the question "What is your parentage?" after an awkward pause, as if fumbling for something to say and coming up with only the rather prosaic, "Urn, so, where are you from?" Later, as she was recalling the conversation, she repeated the question (as the text requires) while mimicking her own delivery with derision and shaking her head as if to say, "What were you thinking?" Her actions were equally comic. At the end of the play, after exclaiming "Most wonderful" with unbridled joy at the prospect of having two Cesarios to herself, she eventually went over to Sebastian, and, just to make sure, gave his crotch a sturdy squeeze and nodded with satisfied reassurance of good times to come.

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Additionally, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Feste formed a lusty, uproarious comic trio, with Toby blustering his way through all the revels and shenanigans and Andrew, who repeated his "back-trick"--a fey backward half-step--at every opportunity he got, stumbled and skipped his way through with good-humored optimism. Even the moment at the end when Toby, bloodied and halting, seems to reject Andrew and expose the ugly underbelly of their exploitative relationship, was played to defuse any possible turbulence; rather than saying, "Will you help?--an ass-head and a coxcomb and a knave, a think-faced knave, a gull!" with all the insults referring to Andrew, he ran it all together so that it read, "Will you help an ass-head and a coxcomb ...?" and the pejoratives referred to himself. Somewhat similarly, Malvolio's vow of revenge at the end was rather muted as the pervasive spirit was one of reconciliation; there was no doubt that he would be entreated to a peace. A part of why the audience shared so easily in the generosity was that it had been continually encouraged to participate in the performance. During the revels of 2.3, Feste led the audience in singing "Hold Thy Peace," and when Maria walked on to scold the revelers, Feste turned to the audience and said, "Shame on you!" Even Malvolio got in on the act, pleading with the audience to make the letters "M. O. A. I." resemble something in him, and in fact the audience obliged by shouting out "Malvolio" as he repeated "M" over and over. This production realized very fully what the Director Jonathan Croy wrote in the Program Notes: "Comedy has an unfailingly optimistic view of life."

Two productions of Twelfth Night in one summer hardly make up a scientific sample, but they did raise a question: Why, beyond sheer coincidence, do we have two productions that avoid much of the darkness that has come to be so emphasized in criticism and productions in the recent past? Why this sudden outburst of libidinal joy, festive fun and the hopeful brightness of Hollywood romance? One simple reason suggests itself: the election of Barack Obama. The world may still be mired in the Great Recession, but people--at least those in the theatre who tend to be progressive and for whom the Bush years were one extended period of despairing misery and chronic frustration--have the audacity to hope.

YU JIN KO, Wellesley College
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Author:Ko, Yu Jin
Publication:Shakespeare Bulletin
Article Type:Theater review
Date:Dec 22, 2009
Words:2540
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