Thursday, May 30, 2013


Twelfth Night is one of those William Shakespeare plays with followers, meaning those extremely well-versed, if authoritative, fans. These are the ones who anticipate the play’s iconic lines—alas, its first, “If music be the food of love, play on,” garners a collective sigh—as  well as every twist and turn of this joyously confusing comedy. It is the story of Viola and Sebastian, twins who are separated after a shipwreck and, convinced the other has drowned, are finally, happily reunited while also finding romantic love in the far-off land of Illyria.
         But, thanks to Robert Richmond’s polished interpretation of Twelfth Night, showing through June 9th at +Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C. to close out the Folger season, even a Twelfth Night “novice” would be able to (a) follow the complicated story; and (b) appreciate how exceptional this particular staging of the play is, if not for some glamorous costuming (Mariah Hale) and grand set design (Tony Cisek), than for the infusion of a some more suitably-rousing music selections than the play-write intended, but surely would have found agreeable.
            It has become acceptable, if expected, to see a beloved William Shakespeare play get fitted with an alternate setting.  To his foundational stories, the tragedies, the epics and, here, the warm-hearted and tearfully happy Twelfth Night, we’ve seen in film and on stage so many variations, including many in Washington, D.C., by our local acting companies. Among them is the Arlington-based Washington Shakespeare Company (WSC). There was the provocative, prickly Measure for Measure set in the Jim Crow south of the 1950s (directed by WSC’s artistic director Christopher Henley); Troilus and Cressida, (directed by Joe Banno) whose Trojans, including Paris, held court in an ritzy, country club world with comforts that win the vacuous Helen over faster (never mind that she was kidnapped) than you can say “Achilles’ heel.”  And then, there is the thematic overlay, without the overlay, most memorably WSC’s critically-acclaimed all-nude Macbeth (directed by Henley).
            In 2003, the Folger Theatre staged an “updated” Twelfth Night under the direction of Aaron Posner, where his Sebastian and Viola are hip, Gen-X urbanites, in twin leather jackets, loose pony-tails and crocheted vests. But, whatever the veil, Twelfth Night, for all of its light-heartedness, is a forceful story with a capacity to put anyone’s perspective in a better place.
            In this production, the warm-hearted tale of love resonates from start to finish, and Richmond’s concept, circa 1915, in which the sinking of the RMS Lusitania serves as the tragic vessel from which the story unfolds, sparkles and shimmers, quite literally, thanks to Andrew Griffin’s masterful lighting design. Griffin and Cisek came up with a massive, lilting, stained glass medallion for the scenic boat disaster that sets off the story—a  glass window borrowed from what looks to be the Empress of Ireland First-class Music Room inside the Lusitania, and a symbol, perhaps, to honor the epic craftsmanship that incased the lush interiors of the ill-fated luxury liner. (Following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the British vessel was believed to be carrying munitions—which has since been confirmed through maritime research. A German U-boat torpedoed the ocean liner 11 miles off the coast of Ireland, in waters they had declared a war zone, sinking the massive ship within 20 minutes, and killing nearly 1200 people.)
            But this world of the early 20th century—lavish yet precarious, and energized by curious yet sensible Edwardians—serves as an easy world for the mysterious mini-kingdom of Illyria, where love, music and mischief ultimately cure nearly everyone from a collective bout of melancholy. 
Feste (Louis Butelli) greets Viola (Emily Trask) in the land of Illyria
            Among them are: Lady Olivia (the aquiline Rachel Pickup), who pines for her dead brother—and a companion; where Duke Orsino (the strapping, stately Michael Brusasco) longs for the same, unaware that his new servant, Cesario, the disguised Viola (endearingly played by Emily Trask), will prove to be his great love; where Sebastian’s (a solid William Vaughan) odyssey reunites him with Viola and  into the arms of Olivia; and, where, in the bigger picture, devoted love transcends caste and social standing, as is the case in its most barefaced between Sir Toby Belch (Craig Wallace) and Olivia’s maid, Maria (Tonya Beckman). Only Malvolio (a wondrous, neo-archetypical Richard Sheridan Willis) is left to ponder his empty heart. To be sure, Twelfth Night followers, (some, at this point, spiritedly hanging from the upper rafters of the Folger’s 250-seat Elizabethan-style playhouse), are no doubt planning the Willis garb for their next, ‘Come as Your Favorite Malvolio’ get together.
            It is the music of this Twelfth Night, however, that captures the play’s mischief, and spirit—that willful voice whispering something about suspended disbelief, because, yes, wishes can come true. Under the music direction of Joshua Morgan, this turn-of the Century Twelfth Night benefits from a treasure trove of gorgeous time-appropriate composition from which to draw. Indeed, Morgan and fellow musical arranger Joel DeCandio must have had a field day leveraging this delightful coincidence.           
             Claude Debussy’s beloved piano piece “Clair de Lune” plays early on in the play, its romantic resonance a perfect backdrop for Duke Orsino’s lovesick opening command. Debussy published “Clair de Lune” around 1890 and published it in 1905 as part of his famous Suite bergamasque.  Equally compelling and used variously during heights of glum self-loathing on the parts of Olivia and Orsino, is the choice of Alfredo Catalani’s melody from his opera La Wally, first performed in 1892. La Wally’s famous opening aria, popularized for anchoring the story line of the 1981 film Diva, deals with a heroic woman who decides to go far away from her home forever, her suggested solitude in a distant land analogous to Illyria’s despondent natives.
            Michele Osherow, Folger’s resident dramaturg, writes about this sweet iteration of Twelfth Night: “This production coaxes out fancies by triggering our own illusions of times past. This happens most immediately, I think, through music.”
            While Shakespeare’s original play is riddled his own musical scoring, such as, “Oh Mistress Mine,” performed superbly by Feste (Louis Butelli) and company, this production augments that vision. A number of terrific melodies are infused, and, even when the lights are up, the cast sways and sings along as if song is a far easier language than the mere exchange of words.
            In the hands of Butelli’s Feste and his ukulele, song and dance buttress an already-buoyant story, while a piano plays such period hits as “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” (written by Gus Edwards and Edward Madden in 1909), and “Ain’t She Sweet,” (written by Milton Ager and Jack Yellen in 1927). To underscore the intimate nature of Twelfth Night, the cast engages the audience, particularly through its folk-like ditties, and, pleasantly, even during the intermission, most memorably with “Daisy Bell”, written by Henry Dacre in 1892. Butelli’s skillful plucking is a production within a production.
Walter Howell Deverell's 1850 canvas, Twelfth Night

            It is Feste, after all, who some might say embodies the musical playfulness of Twelfth Night. So resonant is this notion—that of the relationship between love and music and one’s state of mind--- that countless artists captured the scene in paintings centuries later. Curiously, in an exhibit that just ran its course down the road at the National Gallery of Art, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848-1900, more than 100 works of the volatile mid-19th century art movement known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were on display. Among them was Walter Howell Deverell’s “Twelfth Night,” a larger than life oil on canvas completed in 1850 that captures Shakespeare’s music-loving Illyrians in all of their technicolor daftness. In it, Deverell himself modeled for the Duke while his colleague Dante Gabriel Rossetti posed as Feste and Rossetti’s future wife is seen as Viola dressed as the page Cesario. It is a painting from which one can practically hear the heartsick Duke plead for more of Feste’s music, while asking his new page, Viola/Cesario, “How dost like this tune?”, to which she/he replies, in words that stir his heart, thus, binding him uncomfortably to his servant, “It gives a very echo to the seat where love is throned.”

Ticket and Info. to Twelfth Night, @Folger Theatre

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