William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” is a complex play, full of gender mix-ups, mistaken identities, and other deceptions. The Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of the play, playing at the Plaza Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts until October 22, ends up just as confused as some of the characters. There is some strong acting, most notably by Doug Lockwood as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and James Andreassi as Sir Toby Belch. But the actors alone cannot save a maddeningly inconsistent production, which awkwardly wavers between camp, comedy, and drama.
The dramatic elements are by far the weakest part of this production, perhaps unsurprising given that the play was originally written as a “twelfth night entertainment”—an amusing piece meant to be performed on the last night of the Christmas holiday. “Twelfth Night” focuses on the twins Viola and Sebastian, who are shipwrecked before the play begins. To get by in a new land, Viola pretends to be a man, leading to much confusion at the court of Illyria. There is an extended subplot focusing on pranks coordinated by the drunken Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. The premise is inherently absurd, which means that any attempt to inject a more serious tone is liable to come at the expense of the comedy.
The production’s solemn attitude becomes most obnoxious toward the end; the extended denouement of the play, which should be filled with comic frenzy, is anemic and tired. Sebastian and Viola’s reunion is an oddly somber affair, from the actors’ flat delivery to the gloomy, minimal lighting. Marianna Bassham, who plays Viola, loses a lot of her appeal once she stops being able to make hilarious facial expressions.
At the same time, these dramatic sequences are marred by a sense of pretension. Director Melia Bensussen includes extended scenes where Allyn Burrows, playing the servant Malvolio, sits in a pit of sand while images of galaxies are projected behind him. It’s an unexpected choice that’s technically well executed but adds little artistically. These technical flourishes are at odds with the play’s minimal set and odd soundtrack, which consists in part of listless, high-pitched drones. Judging from the director’s notes, these elements are supposed to help us consider the questions of identity and unrequited love that exist in the play; instead, they distract from the action and cause the production yet more internal dissonance.
With all these issues to think about, it’s easy to forget that this is indeed a comedy—and when the actors get to cut loose, the production is most enjoyable. Burrows brings a clever self-importance to his Malvolio, while Lockwood and Andreassi’s drunken cadences are responsible for the production’s funniest and least thematically weighty moments. Even the spare art direction and costumes add to the production in these sequences; the choice to dress Andreassi in a beat up t-shirt both suits his character and contrasts nicely with his more formally attired fellows.
But there is a troubling problem with these comedic sequences—they shift uncomfortably between the comedy that Shakespeare intended and a metatheatrical parody of it. At times, “Twelfth Night” verges on camp; the actors say their lines with a wink, getting laughs from the dated language. At one point, Lockwood grasps a female actress’s bosom and quickly fist pumps. That moment, more than anything else, exemplifies the broadly mocking tone that dominates at times. The actors are more comfortable in the comedic tone, but they are left unable to embrace it wholeheartedly by the dramatic emphasis of the production as a whole.
It’s this lack of thematic, tonal, and technical unity that defines the entire production; there are many different possibilities being pursued, but none are fully developed. The pretentious drama doesn’t overwhelm the comedy, but the comic elements aren’t solid enough to make the drama worthwhile. With more focus, perhaps this production could have been a successful reimagining of “Twelfth Night,” one full of high camp and heightened drama that also managed to say something interesting about sexuality and identity. But perhaps that is too much to ask of a simple twelfth night’s entertainment.