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Here and There A 'Twelfth Night'

By Caldwell Titcomb

Although it has had its strong detractors over the years, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is for many the finest comedy in our language. It was the climax of a series of three romantic comedies written in quick succession; Shakespeare learned much from the experience of writing the inferior Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It, and was able to approach perfection in Twelfth Night. Having done so, he turned away from the genre to deal with darker or tragic matters.

Twelfth Night drew on a number of common devices of the time. Indeed Shakespeare himself had made use of mistaken twins, a wooer by proxy in disguise, and a crucial letter and ring in his much earlier Comedy of Errors and Two Gentlemen of Verona. What sets Twelfth Night above its immediate and more remote predecessors is its great skill in combining three plots, its masterly preparation for peak scenes, its more subtle and less garish character painting, the richness of thematic overtones and undertones, and the substantial integration of sung music into its spoken music.

Quite by chance it happens that we now have two simultaneous productions of Twelfth Night. The work was chosen by Gerald Freedman, the newly appointed artistic director of the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, as the vehicle for resuming activity after a season's hiatus. And it is the inaugural offering of the second "Broadway at Brandeis" season here at the Spingold Theatre in nearby Waltham. With such a wondrous work, however, this overlapping by no means constitutes excess--or "surfeit," to use the play's own word for one of its major themes.

Twelfth Night offers unusual latitude to a director; indeed the dramatist himself provided it with the subtitle What You Will. But whoever painted the wooden sign outside the AST grounds went too far in calling the play The Twelfth Night; perhaps he came to work from watching The Seventh Dawn on the Late Late Show.

The AST's first attempt, in 1960, went beyond all permissible bounds in its Coney Island hodgepodge of a production. It did better in 1966, and still better in 1974. Taken as a whole, the current version is as good as the third. Even if one disagrees with some of Freedman's initial decisions, one must admit that the result is a smooth and elegant production. Not many of the players and staff have worked at the AST before, and Freedman was probably wise to bring in a considerable roster of people with whom he had worked elsewhere. With one major exception, the actors are more than sufficiently at home in Shakespearean language.

The playwright set his story in Illyria, which was on the Adriatic coast and, in his day, under Venetian rule. The point of this, really, was to choose a spot distant from the England of 1600. For an exotic place Freedman has substituted an exotic time; he has located the production in the 18th century, which is of course remote from both the Elizabethan age and ours.

As the basic setting, Ming Cho Lee has designed a huge and handsome two-story ballroom, with lots of French doors, upper windows, chandeliers, and two small opposing balconies at the downstage end. From time to time other interiors are suggested by lowering backdrop tapestries in the middle or sliding in a kitchen table from the wings. For garden scenes some potted trees are rolled in, and the sea-coast scenes are played on a side apron. Thus, aided by David Segal's lighting, the impact of the designer's architecture can be lessened when desired.

At the outset of the show, a flutist, cellist and lutanist take their place in a far corner of the hall. They provide the accompaniment for two unspecified songs, followed by a dance (choreographed by Graciela Daniele) in which the white-masked members of the court all participate. We seem to be watching a traditional Twelfth Night masque. And all this preliminary music gives added point to the play's opening lines, in which Duke Orsino refers to the "excess" of music, to a "dying fall" (which is accurately fitted to a descending cadence), and finally requests a halt.

Although Twelfth Night is one of the shorter plays in the canon, Freedman felt it necessary to compensate for all the time given to musical numbers, here and later, by cutting quite a bit of the text; in order to get the running-time down to two hours and forty minutes. I wish he'd had the courage to give us the full text and let the show run three hours.

Presiding over the play is the clown Feste, whose name doubtless came from the mock-king fest us who ruled over the old Twelfth Night saturnalia. Feste was assigned the four major songs, since Shakespeare's acting company had recently acquired in Robert Armin a gifted singer to succeed the clown Will Kempe. The current Feste is Mark Lamos, who not only has a fine voice but also plucks his own theorbo in the charming songs composed by John Morris. Freedman has also given Feste four additional singers. In the setting of "O Mistress Mine," for instance, with its lovely upward leaps of sixths and sevenths, Lamos, sitting cross-legged on the kitchen table, starts by himself, is joined by two men and then two women, and the song is finally done as a canon. The setting warrants its later reprise just before the tabor-and-church duologue.

Not to be condoned, however, as Freedman's decision to dispense with Fabian and give all of Fabian's lines to Feste. This upsets the balance of roles, and undermines Feste's relative neutrality. It is true that Fabian is one of the hardest of Shakespeare's sizeable roles for an actor to endow with individuality; but fusing it with another is not the way to deal with the problem.

As Viola, who spends almost the whole play disguised as the pageboy Cesario, we have Lynn Redgrave, attired in an aquamarine suit and sporting a head of short red hair. She brings a surprisingly forceful voice and a sure comic instinct. It is fun to watch her lapse from her assumed machismo--as when, on exclaiming of Olivia, "She loves me sure," she girlishly claps her hands over her face, or repeatedly swoons at the prospect of having to duel with Sir Andrew. Her performance perhaps owes something to her recent portrayal of another witty and manly woman, Shaw's Saint Joan. It is possibly no coincidence that the supreme traversal of both Viola and Saint Joan were given, in the late '50s, by Siobhan McKenna.

Redgrave would do well to cut down somewhat on all the donning and doffing and crumpling of her tricorne. Freedman has involved her in one inspired bit of innovative staging: during the singing of "O Mistress Mine" Orsino and Olivia appear in the opposing balconies, each meditatively gazing up into the night sky; Viola silently enters below, and, while listening, looks up at first one and then the other. We thus have a visual triangle to underline the love triangle in which the three characters are involved.

Philip Kraus is suitable as Sebastian, the twin brother Viola believes lost at sea. As in the two previous AST productions, the confusion of the two siblings is made more credible by having Kraus act somewhat effeminately--both twins thus being androgynous. In Shakespeare's day the problem naturally did not arise, since both roles were played by young boys, actresses being forbidden by law until the Rest oration.

Penny Fuller is an attractive enough Olivia, though she plays pretty close to the surface. Not only is she intent on a seven-year period of mourning for her brother, but she carries a black fan and even keeps her two sofas draped in black. In private she pops mints into her mouth from a pillbox. In her first meeting with Viola--Cesario she raises a smile by ticking off her virtues--lips, eyes, neck, chin--and then tucking her locket mirror into her bosom on the words "and so forth." She leaves no doubt that she is smitten by the young page since she whips the black drapes off her sofas when she exits. Later on, she goes much too far, when confessing her love, by chasing the page around the room like a dog in heat--no countess would do such a thing.

As the man who woos Olivia from afar, Orsino usually comes off as insipid and invertebrate. How welcome, then, to find Laurence Guittard imbuing the role with solidity! Orsino's understanding lags behind his feelings, but the man does feel. Guittard gives us the melancholy, but he also gives us the passion and assertiveness (the name Orsino, after all, means "bearish"). He speaks sonorously and creates a duke of real size.

Joseph Bova plays the tippling Sir Toby broadly but effectively. At his first entrance he noisily trips on the stairs coming up from the cellar (the wine-cellar, no doubt), and spends most of the play inebriated, at one point even trying to mount Maria the servant right on the kitchen table. Mary Louise Wilson is the amusing Maria.

Steven Vinovich is for once as tall a Sir Andrew as the text indicates. With long straight blond hair he is property dim-witted, pulling out a phrase book every time someone uses a French word, and pulling out his sword only to cut his own finger.

The chief shortcoming of the production is the atrocious Malvolio perpetrated by Bob Dishy. This is a particular disappointment after the fine Malvolios that Josef Sommer and Philip Kerr acted on the same stage in 1966 and 1974. And the role of this egotistical killjoy is so important that in the 17th century the play was sometimes billed as Malvolio.

Dishy seems not to have the remotest experience with Shakespearean speech. Again and again his intonation rings false. Director Freedman is partly to blame, too, for instructing or allowing Dishy to drag everything in the classic Letter Scene beyond endurance. At first Dishy practices poses and gestures at great length. When he discovers the forged love note, he milks its contents interminably, sketching the enigmatic capital letters in the air and mouthing them repeatedly ad nauseam. And his labored attempts to achieve a smile should have stayed in vaudeville. Like Falstaff in Henry IV, Malvolio hasn't learned a thing by the end of the play, but he is not utterly stupid. Yet Dishy makes him seem more slow-witted than Sir Andrew.

Jeanne Button's costume designs are for the most part exemplary. And all the men in Orsino's household are identifiable through having shoes with bright red heels. In any game it's good to be able to tell the teams apart easily.

The second production of Twelfth Night, now playing at Brandeis, was--like its Shavian offering last summer--imported straight from the Academy Festival Theatre in the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, and directed by Philip Minor.

The unit set designed by John Wright Stevens is a curtained belvedere that does not lend itself well to the different locations called for in the play. Most of the Brandeis stage is unused, since the set is placed so far forward. The playing area is unduly shallow and so steeply raked that it must be difficult to move about on. The cast must, to use Macbeth's words, feel "cabin'd, cribb'd, confin'd." Perhaps the Lake Forest stage is unusually small; but if so, some adjustment ought to have been made here by pushing the set back or even chucking it entirely in favor of a bare stage with movable furniture and props.

I don't much care for most of Laura Crow's eclectic costumes either. The ones for Olivia's household, post-Elizabethan but still European, are passable. But those for Orsino and his attendants are light organdy dresses that seem to have wandered out of some edition of The Arabian Nights. Is this supposed to be a reverse comment on Viola's transvestism?

Philip Minor is less lavish with music than Freedman, and less self-indulgent in overall pacing. Although Minor commendably retains more of the text, his show is still a good twenty minutes shorter than the Stratford one. He has not, unfortunately, assembled a cast that is as skilled in classical diction as Freedman's players.

Even as good an actress as Jean Marsh is not well cast as Viola. She has some fine comic bits, to be sure, but her studied performance in general lacks Redgrave's sparkle. And she scants much of the lovely verse--such as the "damask cheek" speech, which she virtually throws away.

The role of Viola, which contains a good deal of bravura, tends to overshadow the role of Olivia. But the latter is actually a much subtler part, and a harder one to do well. Yet Patricia Conolly's Olivia here is one of the three major roles in which Brandeis surpasses Startford. Conolly never loses a countess's proper carriage, nor does she violate the character's mellowness. In her first meeting with Viola, her veil is too transparent, but her timing in this scene is masterly. And on first seeing the twins together she can put a world of meaning into her exclamation, "Most wonderful." If Penny Fuller's Olivia at Startford is silver-plated, Conolly's here is pure gold.

The second superb performance is Ellis Rabb's snooty Malvolio. Rabb was, in fact, one of the best players in the AST's early years. At any rate, this is his fourth enactment of Malvolio (he has even directed Twelfth Night elsewhere), and his experience shows.

In trying to suppress the midnight carousers by saying, "Are you mad? Or what are you?," he can make the word what sound perfectly awful-similarly, in a later scene, when he brands them "shallow things." In the Letter Scene, Malvolio reads the sentence, "If this fall into thy hand, revolve." I must confess that I always enjoy seeing the actor foolishly turn around (as Rabb does), although in Shakespeare's day the word revolve meant simply consider, and had not yet taken on the modern meaning of rotate.

In the Cross-Gartered Scene, I don't understand why Rabb changes each occurrence of Jove to God. And his costumer, like the Startford one, has skimped on the cross-gartering. In proper cross-gartering, it is not enough to enclose just the kneecap; the crisscrossing should go all the way down the leg to the foot, as in the well-known 18th-century Malvolio painting by Ramberg. In the Prison Scene it is poor staging that allows us to see only Malvolio's hands sticking through a basement window. Still, Rabb's is a portrayal to cherish, right up to the series of glares he aims at one person after another when, unenlightened, he voices a final threat and departs.

The third triumph is Robert Moberly's ludicrous yet piteous Sir Andrew, whose cough cannot conceal a basically pasty-faced visage. For him plant stalks are a snare, his nose a source of itching, he skin a meal for flies and mosquitoes. Moberly is amazingly inventive; he runs the risk of submerging Anddrew in a dictionary of shtick, but succeeds in making it all work. I do not recall ever seeing any of Shakespeare's peripheral comics played more engagingly.

As Feste, Charles Levin tries hard but falls short. For one thing, he isn't much of a singel. He and his two assisting musicians (lyre, mandoline and lute) get little help from Richard Cumming's songs, though Cumming has furnished fine instrumental scene-links for horn and woodwind.

Robert Murch (Sir Toby) and Michael Tolaydo (Orsino) do little more than get through their lines, though Mary Doyle wins a few points for her Maria. Making his professional debut here is Peter Francis-James, doubling the supporting roles of Valentine and an Officer. Though these offer little opportunity, it is at least apparent that Francis-James has learned to speak quite beautifully at the Royal Academy in London, where he played Orsino. I wish he had been entrusted with the role here.

Finally, the directors of both these productions of Twelfth Night need to be told that the word exquisite is accented on the first syllable and unhospitable on the second.

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