Sometimes, in its ongoing bout with Shakespeare’s canon, Folger Theatre goes for the outright pin. At other times, it seems content with a draw.
Folger’s new “Twelfth Night” qualifies in the humbler category: It is a production that is merely cute. Director Robert Richmond, who in January guided the young Zach Appelman to a steady star turn in Folger’s “Henry V,” finds no theme or performance of similar dynamism with which to inspire him. The proceedings skip manically from moment to moment and gag to gag, skimming the surface of a bittersweet comedy, leaving its darker underpinnings underexplored.
Although the evening does manage to get laughs, they are mostly of the reflex variety, the short-burst guffaws that express an audience’s recognition of familiar jokes — or its relief at a classic’s accessibility. With its time-honored Shakespearean devices (woman disguised as man, twins mistaken for each other, stranger in strange land), the plot cannot hold many surprises for the company’s return customers. Some may even recall the worthier attempt at a madcap “Twelfth Night” in the music-driven production mounted at Folger a decade ago by Aaron Posner.
Still, Richmond’s screwball machinations, which include characters freezing downstage for photographs and silent-movie-style chase scenes, seem to undercut the original design rather than illuminate it.
The action has been dialed forward to 1915, which mostly is an accommodation for the cutaways and gowns supplied by costume designer Mariah Hale, and for the playing of period songs — music being the food of love and all that. To fill out the economical 11-person cast, some actors dance (weirdly) with mannequins, with ensemble member Joshua Morgan solidly providing the piano accompaniment. Nestled among the conceits is the story of the romantic confusion wreaked by Viola (Emily Trask), who disguises herself as a man to serve Duke Orsino (Michael Brusasco) and present his matrimonial case to the grieving Olivia (Rachel Pickup).
Trask conveys a Viola as appealing gamine; one only wishes that the amorous connection between her and Brusasco, evoked in both speeches and physical encounters, gave off more sparks. As Feste, the clown in Olivia’s household, Louis Butelli alternates between benign and malignant spirit, an ambiguous portrayal that comes closest to projecting the enigmatic duality of “Twelfth Night.”
The most glaring mishandling is Richmond’s treatment of that enduring standard-bearer of pretentiousness, Olivia’s snooty manservant, Malvolio. He’s played here by Richard Sheridan Willis, an actor of comic polish who needs little help in creating an illusion of unctuousness. (The waves in his hair, rolled into cylinders, wittily give him the look of an overgrown Munchkin.)
The scene, however, in which Malvolio is tricked by naughty Maria (Tonya Beckman) and the nasty drunk Toby Belch (Craig Wallace) into appearing in foolish wooing garb before the unwinnable Olivia is smothered by grotesqueness. Shakespeare has Malvolio deceived into appearing before her in yellow stockings, in a fashion called cross-gartering, both of which Olivia loathes. Modern productions seem intent on ruining the joke by turning the fashion faux pas into a vision of a character out of an S&M nightmare.
Here, outfitted like a decadent bumblebee, Willis’s Malvolio is made to seem so irredeemably perverted that the pathos of the ensuing scene — in which he’s taunted while locked in a cell — comes to naught; that his prison is the inside of a baby-grand piano comes across as just another gimmick.
Tony Cisek’s set, with its oversize, damaged rose window and free-standing white staircase, has the same effect as much of this rambling evening, rife with obvious or just plain odd choices.
by William Shakespeare. Directed by Robert Richmond. Set, Tony Cisek; costumes, Mariah Hale; lighting, Andrew Griffin; sound, Matthew M. Nielson; fight direction, Casey Kaleba; dramaturgy, Michele Osherow. With Chris Genebach, James Konicek, William Vaughan. About two hours, 50 minutes. Through June 9 at the Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Call 202-544-7077 or visit folger.edu/theatre.