Free for All 'Twelfth Night' embraces vision of original director Taichman

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

In the Shakespeare Theatre Company's unglamorous rehearsal space on Eighth Street SE, it's just dawning on Duke Orsino (Gregory Wooddell) that his servant Cesario is in fact the lovely Viola (Christina Pumariega) in male disguise. After the two confused couples, including Viola's presumed-dead twin brother Sebastian (Randy Harrison) and the lady Olivia (Sarah Agnew) get sorted out near the close of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," the much-abused sourpuss Malvolio (Philip Goodwin) turns up and threatens revenge on the lot of them, especially Sir Toby Belch (Chuck Cooper) and the wise clown Feste (Floyd King).

The Shakespeare's Associate Director Alan Paul is guiding the actors in a remount of the 2008-09 winter production for this summer's Free for All, which runs Thursday through Sept. 5 at Sidney Harman Hall. Six of the leads are new, but Paul's goal is to reignite the magic of the production originally staged by Rebecca Bayla Taichman.

Critics and audiences talked a lot about Taichman's unusual visual concept for "Twelfth Night" and how boldly it embodied the emotional arc the characters traverse. The play begins, explains Paul, when Viola, a shipwreck victim, arrives in Illyria. She, and everyone she meets, is in mourning or suffering from melancholy. Illyria is a "cold, isolating, loveless, hard place" encased in a blue, icelike atmosphere. Then, as the romantic comedy blossoms, "each time somebody falls in love, rose petals fall from the ceiling," says Paul. By the end of the first act, when Olivia has fallen in love with Cesario (the disguised Viola), she eschews the black attire of mourning and appears "in a chartreuse dress . . . and a deluge of 50,000 rose petals falls to the ground, and the rest of the show is surrounded by these enormous, luscious images of roses."

The original idea came to Taichman when she dreamt she was in a design meeting for the play. "I was saying . . . the first half is all ice and the second half is all roses, and I woke up and I was like, 'YEAH!' " It would be, she felt, "a very dreamlike way to enter the play. . . . It has this kind of lonely, sort of eerie anxiety that haunts it in the beginning . . . [then] explodes into a wild erotic playground of desire."

"Twelfth Night" is about "a world in which there's no balance, really," Taichman says by phone from New York, where she's staging a new adaptation of Virginia Woolf's novel "Orlando," by playwright Sarah Ruhl. "Toby's in the third degree of drink. Orsino's in the third degree of melancholy. Everybody's in some degree of excess, except Feste, who I think, in some ways, is the dead center of the play, who's trying to say we have to balance the laughter with the tears and find a place that can contain both."

Paul, a Potomac native, deems Taichman, a friend and mentor, partly responsible for the fact that he's working at Shakespeare Theatre Company only four years after graduating from Northwestern. She and Paul met while he was interning at Woolly Mammoth, and she helped get his foot in the door for an interview at the Shakespeare, where he quickly moved up from a directing fellowship to associate director. Now, Paul is determined to say "thank you" by doing Taichman's "Twelfth Night" in a manner loyal to her vision.

"What was so wonderful about the original production that I'm trying to capture is that tone, which is so hard to name and so hard to grasp," he says. "It's elusive, the tone of the play. . . . I will have done my job if I capture the same magic that Rebecca captured the first time around."

Coming up at Rep Stage

Rep Stage in Columbia ended last season with $5,000 in the kitty, according to Artistic Director Michael Stebbins, even with all the canceled performances of "The Glass Menagerie" caused by Snowmageddon, costing the company about $10,000 in lost sales and expenses.

It was enough to convince Stebbins he'd made the right choice in trimming back the schedule for the Equity company, which performs at Howard Community College's Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, from five to four shows per season. Beginning in the 2005-06 season, he'd experimented with four plays plus a holiday show, and even five plays plus a holiday show the following season. But since the college opened the Horowitz Center, Rep Stage has had to share theater space with ever more student productions and musical events. The scheduling issue, plus this past winter-from-hell, convinced him to tighten the belt a bit more.

In 2010-11, Rep Stage will do just four shows. The season will open with a re-imagining of "Travels With My Aunt" (Aug. 25-Sept. 12), which was a hit for the company in its 1995-96 season, again staged by Kasi Campbell. Two actors from that first production, Bill Largess and Nigel Reed, will return, joined by Lawrence Redmond and Michael Russotto. The play is based on Graham Greene's book, adapted by Giles Havergal. The actors will play multiple characters, including the narrator, Henry Pulling, and his formidable Aunt Augusta, as well as the people they meet on their travels.

A pair of one-acts by "Peter Pan" author J.M. Barrie will make up the next show: "Two by J.M. Barrie: The New Word and The Old Lady Shows Her Medals" (Oct. 6-24). Stebbins will direct. Both plays deal with the effects of World War I. In "The New Word," a father and his soldier son try to say goodbye. In "The Old Lady Shows Her Medals," an English washerwoman and a Scottish soldier become an adoptive mother and son. The cast will feature Largess, Maureen Kerrigan and Jason Odell Williams.

Heather McDonald's one-character piece about a grieving father and his spiritual travails, "An Almost Holy Picture" (Feb. 2-20, 2011), will star Stebbins and be directed by Tony Tsendeas.

The season will close with "Speech & Debate" (April 13-May 1, 2011) by Stephen Karam, a 2007 musical that ran off-Broadway. Eve Muson will direct the darkly comic tale of three teen misfits who find a way to unmask a teacher who is a sexual predator.

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

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