STRATFORD, Conn.--This summer marks the 20th season of the American Shakespeare Theatre, as the American Shakespeare Festival rechristened itself a year ago. The program and publicity tout this as the "20th anniversary," which it is not; that, of course, will fall next summer.
But let us put faulty arithmetic aside. A 20th season is reason enough to celebrate. The AST has aptly just kicked off with Twelfth Night, a work often chosen for special occasions. Tyrone Guthrie used it to inaugurate Canada's Stratford Festival, and it was the first Shakespearean play ever to be televised in its entirety from a theatre. It is probable that Shakespeare wrote the play for an important Twelfth Night entertainment at Queen Elizabeth's court. The year of its first performance is in some dispute, but such a superlative achievement had to have come after the two other romantic comedies of about the same period, Much Ado and As You Like It, which are mere student exercises by comparison.
The work has admittedly had its detractors. Pepys attended three productions and termed it "a silly play" and "one of the weakest plays that ever I saw." And one of Britain's finest reviewers, Max Beerbohm, branded it "hackwork" and found it "perfunctory and formless," "tedious and frigid." For my money, it's the supreme work of its kind. And Shakespeare, having at last approached perfection, never returned to the genre again, but proceeded to deeper and darker matters.
Twelfth Night is not a pioneering work. The playwright was dealing with materials that he and others had manipulated countless times. The result was, to borrow Pope's words, "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd." The Bard here had three main plots going at once; and in no other play did he tie up so many complicated strands at the end with such mastery or with such a blend of feelings.
How fares this jewel in Connecticut? It doesn't shine so brightly as it deserves to. But British guest director David William has managed to give it considerable luster all the same. What is heartening is to note the progress from the horrendous mishmash that Jack Landau inflicted on us here in 1960 to Frank Hauser's version six years later, which was' visually attractive but aurally offensive. Now, on the third try, there is much to please both the eye and the ear.
John Conklin, new to the AST, has designed a serviceable unit set. In the distance is a sky-and-seascape (I could do without the movable ocean-wave cutouts). To the right is a staircase, and situated here and there are a stone lantern, short columns and statuettes. Perhaps suggested by the Christmas-tree tinsel of the Twelfth Night season, the pervading color of all the solid objects and their trimmings is silver. A close inspection, however, reveals a number of human skulls outlined in the surface textures, as though to suggest--quite rightly--that there are sombre or tart undertones in this play, which many people take to be all sweetness and light. With Marc Weiss's ever helpful lighting, the overall effect is pretty, if on the tawdry side.
The costumes that Jane Greenwood has fashioned are lovely, though sometimes a bit late for the period. The shipwrecked sibling twins Sebastian and Viola (disguised as a pageboy) wear Cavalier rather than Elizabethan dress, similar to the "Blue Boy" garb Greenwood provided for the 1966 production. Unwisely she made the Clown's outfit insufficiently differentiated from those of the rest of Olivia's household.
DIRECTOR William has not left a strong personal imprint on the production; for the most part it plays itself in a straightforward manner, running two and a half hours. But he has chosen to underline the thematic importance of the sea. Not only do the waves move, but he also gives us a soundtrack of their swashing, and even an actual ocean mist. When Viola is washed up on the Illyrian shore, she turns and takes a long look at the ocean before telling the Captain, "Lead me on." At the very end, while the Clown sings the stanzas of "When that I was," the remaining characters gradually depart, leaving him alone; when he is finished, he turns his back on us and gazes off across the water, whose whoosh is the last thing we hear.
William has blocked the entire finale effectively, and the reuniting of the siblings is touching indeed. But he should not have allowed Antonio to misaccentuate "unhospitable" (Shakespeare's only use of the word), nor told him to substitute "hazard myself" for "expose myself." Similarly, he has permitted Sir Toby to stress the second syllable of "exquisite" and bidden him change "Sophy" to "Shah of Persia." Let's leave Shakespeare's text alone. When you start tinkering with obscure terms, where do you stop? The audience does not want to have gratings thrust upon 'em.
The play's biggest role is that of Viola, who spends most of her time disguised as the boy Cesario, whence all the mistaken identity. Such stage disguises were common in Elizabethan times, since all female roles were played by young boys owing to the ban on actresses. And Shakespeare happened to have two extraordinarily gifted boy actors in his company at the turn of the century.
CAROLE Shelley is here an admirable Viola--sprightly, intelligent, and a model of sanity in a world of absurdity. Her diction is clean, and her handling of the "Fortune forbid" soliloquy is particularly distinguished. But there is more beauty in the "damask cheek" speech than she is yet able to convey. (Siobhan McKenna's portrayal remains the yardstick for this part, as for Shaw's Saint Joan and others.) The plausibility of confusion between Viola-Cesario and Sebastian is helped here through Donald Warfield's soft, rather womanly portrayal of the brother (a role once played by a 19-year-old Marlon Brando).
Bearded, bare-chested, and languishing on an oyster-shell litter, Larry Carpenter is an acceptable Duke Orsino, more in love with the idea of love than with its object, Countess Olivia. Caroline McWilliams imbues the pretentiously mourning Olivia with graceful warmth and some delectable touches of sarcasm ("We will hear this divinity"). After her impetuous marriage to Sebastian, however, she neglects to wear the wedding ring referred to in the text.
The towering Fred Gwynne '51 departs from the usual Falstaffian Sir Toby, and gives full rein to his wellknown comedic talents, whether goosing Maria, hiccuping or extracting hidden booze from unexpected places. He also proves himself, in his fight with Sebastian, to be a really first-rate fencer--which seems all the more impressive in the wake of the sidesplittingly inept duel between Viola and Sir Andrew, both of whose foils fly into the air at the opening engagement en quarte, and, later on, wind up in a single hand. Farcical fencing is no easy trick to pull off, and Patrick Crean deserves great credit for his meticulous staging of all the swordplay, both satiric and serious.
As Sir Andrew, the silly suitor, David Rounds is undeniably funny; but turning Andrew into a mere moron is a superficial solution to what ought to be a much more complex characterization. At the performance I saw, the regular Maria, Roberta Maxwell, was replaced by her understudy, Sarah Peterson, who played with all the spirit and assurance of one who had been a servant in the household for years.
Jack Gwillim is a fine Clown when carousing with the others in the comical caterwauling cantata at midnight; but, later, he simply does not have a good enough singing voice to do justice to "Come away, death" and the concluding curtain song (which would also benefit from better synchronization between singer and backstage orchestra). This is no small point, for Shakespeare wrote the heavily musical role especially for Robert Arnim, a new company acquisition who happened to be a superb singer.
THE priggish majordomo Malvolio is the play's pivotal role. He is, along with Shylock, one of Shakespeare's two great comic butts. Malvolio was modeled on Sir William Knollys, Queen Elizabeth's puritanical and much ridiculed comptroller. Both Malvolio and Shylock were so richly written, however, that later ages have often found the roles sympathetic and even tragic. Both offer much leeway to directors and actors. Here, Philip Kerr '63 offers a thoroughly dour and self-inflated misfit who deserves the gulling he gets. In this production, not only is he imprisoned in a dark cell as a lunatic but he is actually locked immobile into his bed by an iron grille.
Kerr's is a performance full of remarkable detail right down to a special wide-stanced uneven gait, and the black-bordered and lace-trimmed handkerchief in which he sequesters Olivia's ring. His celebrated yellow-stocking scene is severely marred, though, by the absence of the prescribed cross-garters. What's the idea of trying to make do with a pair of ordinary bow-knotted circlets around the knees when the text refers nine times to cross-gartering? F'shame!
In lesser roles, John Seidman makes much more of the servant Fabian than customary, Philip Carling is a dull and amateurish Valentine, Michael Levin is an adequate Antonio, and Tom McLaughlin speaks with too much preciosity for a Sea Captain.
John Waldman has gathered bits of incidental music together--some traditional, some not--and scored them effectively. But why organ music at Sir Toby Belch's entrance--unless to be intentionally incongruous?
[Ed. Note: The drive to the picturesque American Shakespeare Theatre's grounds on the Housatonic River takes about two and a half hours via the Massachusetts Turnpike, Interstate 91, and the Connecticut Turnpike to Exit 32 or 31. Performances in the air-conditioned Theatre begin promptly at 2 and 8 p.m. There are free facilities for picnickers on the premises; and a vocal quartet, accompanied by a lutanist, perform Elizabethan madrigals in costume on the lawn prior to each performance.]