'Twelfth Night' Hums Right Along
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 14, 2003; Page C01
Usually a shipwreck is what sets "Twelfth Night" in motion, but in Aaron Posner's zesty new production for the Folger Theatre, it's a piano. Music is not merely the food of love in this incarnation of Shakespeare's droll comedy, with its bittersweet musings on hiding one's true nature and on the fleeting quality of youth. Here, music becomes a means for expressing nearly every emotional current in the play, from longing to ecstasy.
The piano is tucked into a corner of the stage, and it's never idle for very long. Posner's wizardly conceit is that it's there for virtually everyone to play. And virtually everyone in the cast does, settling at the keyboard to plunk out one tune or another from the delightful assortment of original songs by Craig Wright, in a score in which he daringly, though never gratuitously, replaces Shakespeare's lyrics with words of a more contemporary shape.
Showering "Twelfth Night" with melodies has become something of a tradition: The musicals "Your Own Thing" and "Play On!" were both based on the play. The cue comes from the playwright, who peppered "Twelfth Night" with songs for Feste, the evening's worldly clown. Portrayed here by Sarah Marshall, Feste still does the lion's share of the vocalizing, and her songs often contain echoes of Shakespeare's wry commentary. Other songs, however, are complete departures, including a number assigned to Viola, the story's heroine-in-drag, that owes less to the rigors of the lute than to the stylings of Marvin Hamlisch.
The playful score is thoroughly in keeping with Posner's lighthearted approach to one of Shakespeare's most enchantingly poetic works. If some of the more sinister elements -- the fixation on death, the wanton cruelty of the revenge taken on the arrogant Malvolio -- have been brightened a bit, it's all in the spirit of making the play broadly accessible. It's a safe bet you'll leave the Folger not only with renewed faith in how unstuffy Shakespeare can be, but also with a residual giggle or two lodged in your throat.
Posner, co-founder of Philadelphia's Arden Theatre Company, has an acute eye for comic detail and a sure-handed sense of how to tell a story. In fact, he's had the nerve to tinker with the opening scenes in this contemporary re-imagining of the play, and what do you know, it works. The director has taken the play's subtitle -- "Or, What You Will" -- at face value, for he remodels the evening to his own specs. Thus the play begins not with the poetry of Ian Merrill Peakes's Duke Orsino ("If music be the food of love, play on") but with the arrival in Illyria of Holly Twyford's Viola, the lost young woman who will soon disguise herself as a man to become a loyal valet in Orsino's court.
The rearrangement has a smart payoff. Twyford, as the servile Cesario, is soon at that ubiquitous piano, playing a melancholy tune, when Orsino walks in. Peakes's Orsino, in love with the fetching but unattainable Olivia (Kate Eastwood Norris), is such a softy that he blubbers whenever anyone strikes up a tender ballad. More to the point, it's now Viola's musicianship -- and doesn't the name fit the assignment? -- that triggers Orsino's declaration about music and love.
The danger, of course, is that an imaginative director can morph into a mad scientist. In a surfeit of cleverness, creativity can run amok, obliterating subtlety and meaning. (How many calypso "Macbeths" or "Julius Caesars" set in Saskatchewan can a person endure in one lifetime?) Posner flirts with some of these tendencies. Musicality is taken to an extreme at the top of Act 2, when along with Feste, Olivia's sneaky servant Maria (Dori Legg), the liquored-up Toby Belch (David Marks) and his dumb-as-a-post sidekick, Andrew Aguecheek (James Sugg), stage a raucous mini-rock concert. And again, silliness threatens to engulf everything in a dance-fever duel between Viola and Andrew, choreographed to the C&C Music Factory hit "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)."
Pulling out all the outrageous stops may be Posner's what-you-will response to the demands of tying up some of the more ludicrous plot twists, especially those concerning the mistaken-identity complications of Viola and her brother, Sebastian (Twyford and Geoffrey Sobelle's Sebastian don't really look that much alike). Still, with such a well-rounded cast, he could have trusted the text just a tad more.
One can start to sound like a broken record when speaking of Twyford's range. Fresh from a nifty turn as the manipulative graduate student in Neil LaBute's "The Shape of Things" at Studio, she makes a dandy Viola, expressive without seeming showy, introspective without a lot of Method actor intensity. She's a crooner, too: Her delivery to Olivia of Orsino's marriage proposal in the form of a jazzy Broadway piano number is packed with wit. With all that talent, she just has to get the guy.
Equally good is Rick Foucheux in the showboat role of Olivia's detested right-hand man, Malvolio. Often played too much the prig or the buffoon, Malvolio here comes across in a nimble balancing act as just enough of each. In perfectly pressed suits and starchy shirts, Foucheux is the officious bureaucrat you least want to encounter in your daily rounds. Think of TV's Frasier as a simpering maitre d'.
Malvolio's abject humiliation at the hands of the mischief-makers in Olivia's household can sometimes be so brutal that it makes the perpetrators look heartless. In this "Twelfth Night" the machinations are not as severe -- in an inspired bit, the conspirators observe Malvolio falling into their trap on a funny approximation of videotape. And suffice it to say the "cross-gartering" scene -- in which Malvolio attempts a sartorial display of his affection for Olivia -- is the most hilarious (and revealing) rendition you're likely to come across.
Marshall's Feste nicely captures something of the mysterious, burned-out essence of this professional fool, and Peakes's playboyish Orsino is appealingly offbeat; you could imagine him fitting in with the well-dressed con men in "Ocean's Eleven." Speaking of dressing well, Tony Cisek has all the fun at the drawing board, outfitting Belch and Aguecheek in amusing silk suits and alligator shoes. James Kronzer's single wood-paneled set, on the other hand, is merely serviceable. The other players acquit themselves well, although you could hope that Sobelle would relax a little more into the role of Sebastian.
Wright's songs for this "Twelfth Night" sometimes sound as simple as nursery rhymes, but there's an elegance in the simplicity; they don't fussily draw attention to themselves. "Rain comes after sunshine comes after rain," Feste sings in a song that gets at the balance in "Twelfth Night" between ruefulness and joyous abandon. No one will complain too much that this version tilts toward joy.
Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Aaron Posner. Lighting, Nancy Schertler; musical director, James Sugg. With Craig Wallace, Michael Glenn, Michael John Casey. Approximately 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Feb. 9 at the Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE. Call 202-544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu.