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Beneath Rosiness, 'Twelfth' Nearly Swells as Sweet

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2008

It's easy to see why anyone would want to make life as unpleasant as possible for Ted van Griethuysen. Stuffed into a form-fitting cutaway and enveloped in an air of utter disdain, he looks in his latest stage transformation like nothing so much as a dyspeptic penguin.

That is entirely in keeping with the biliously self-righteous character he plays in Shakespeare Theatre Company's niftily acted if gimmick-saturated "Twelfth Night." Van Griethuysen is the production's Malvolio, butt of one of Shakespeare's cruelest and most elaborate jokes, a ramrod bundle of pomposities who is ridiculed, duped and finally tormented in a prison cell.

Van Griethuysen makes all of Malvolio's scenes work -- all of them. It is a gratifying thing, watching an actor well into his AARP years giving a performance that in no way could be deemed retiring. For estimable work, he's closely matched in this go-round in Sidney Harman Hall by another company veteran, Floyd King, who offers up a warmly mellow Feste, the play's sardonic observer, embodied here as a softie clown cousin to Harpo.

The efforts of van Griethuysen and King and many others in the cast -- from Rick Foucheux's poisonous Toby Belch to Christopher Innvar's dapper Orsino -- help an audience understand why "Twelfth Night" is one of Shakespeare's greatest comedies, a beguiling play about sexual identity and self-delusion that's painted in hues both light and harsh.

The show is directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman, whose playful update of "The Taming of the Shrew" last season made delicious, appropriate mincemeat of that comedy's egregious treatment of women. Her "Twelfth Night" begins securely, with the actors in this particularly character-rich environment quickly and crisply establishing the outlines of the heavily plotted framework for the romantic mixups to come.

But as the scenes unfold of the shipwrecked Viola (Samantha Soule) disguising herself as a man, secretly adoring her new employer, Orsino, and acting as his emissary in the wooing of the mourning Olivia (Veanne Cox), things start to get, shall we say, a little too rosy. Riccardo Hernandez's set is decorated like an ad campaign for 1-800-FLOWERS: Huge red roses adorn stage walls and panels. (It's the kind of overindulged visual metaphor that Baz Lurhmann, director of "Moulin Rouge" and "Australia," likes to use in his films and stage productions.)

Then the rose petals begin to fall. At first, the device seems sort of joyful. And then more petals fall. And more. They descend from the ceiling and emerge from actors' fists. They float out of hats and collect in piles on a contoured stage floor. They even stick to the actors' hair, which is an unintended consequence of what happens here: They sort of get in the way.

You have the sense that the director is looking for distractions in a piece that plays so well, that feels so complete, it really doesn't need them. ("A perfect work of art" is how Trevor Nunn, former head of the Royal Shakespeare Company, once described the play.) By the time that a pair of dancers enter, to tango in the transitions between scenes, you're left to conclude that the holiday season this "Twelfth Night" wants to evoke is not Christmas, but rather Valentine's Day.

The shame is that for all the froufrou -- extending to identical gowns in green, salmon, teal and wedding-day white in which costume designer Miranda Hoffman outfits Cox -- the actors themselves are very capably steered. From the lovely moment in which Nancy Robinette's scheming servant Maria helps King's Feste on with a clown collar, to the shrieking duel between Viola and Tom Story's cowardly Andrew Aguecheek, the evening offers plenty to show off Taichman's excellent antennae for comedy and ear for the text.

The music that composer Martin Desjardins sets to Feste's lyrics evokes the clown's bittersweet musings, and King sings them well. And though the joke of Olivia as fashion plate gets too much recycling, Hoffman's costumes elicit from the audience some deserved oohs and aahs.

"Twelfth Night" embarks on two courses: one, the lighthearted mistaken-identity subplot among the hoity-toity of Illyria; and the other, the twisted act of revenge that the earthier characters execute against the detested Malvolio. In some productions, the stories end up vying for primacy; in this instance, the ruder types prevail. The petite Soule is not a particularly galvanizing presence here, and though Innvar expertly gives us Orsino's ambivalent feelings for the girl he thinks is a boy, their tale feels subordinate. At times, Cox's ornately comic performance overpowers Soule as well.

Foucheux, Robinette, Story and King, on the other hand, make for a flaw-free comic tag team. In van Griethuysen, they are blessed with an ideal foil, a Malvolio not so simple-minded as to seem pitiable and not so villainous as to be contemptible.

As it must, van Griethuysen's delivery of Malvolio's exit line chastens the revelry at the end of the play: In this comedy, things are not quite as settled as they seem. Maybe some of those petals would be put to better use, being strewn at this actor's feet.

Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman. Lighting, Christopher Akerlind; composer and sound designer, Martin Desjardins; fight director, Rick Sordelet; choreographer, Daniel Pelzig; voice coach, Ellen O'Brien. With J. Fred Shiffman, Peter Katona, Todd Scofield, Michael Sharon. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Jan. 4 at Harman Center for the Arts, 610 F St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit http://www.shakespearetheatre.org.

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