Theater review

Peter Marks on Free-for-All 'Twelfth Night' at Sidney Harman Hall

GET IT? Tom Story (Sir Andrew Aguecheek) and Floyd King (Feste) are back for more of Rebecca Bayla Taichman's tricks.
GET IT? Tom Story (Sir Andrew Aguecheek) and Floyd King (Feste) are back for more of Rebecca Bayla Taichman's tricks. (Carol Rosegg)
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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

In retracing the steps of an overblown production concept, a director sometimes finds a more felicitous path on the second go-round. And at other times, the flaws just become more apparent.

The latter is what occurs in Shakespeare Theatre Company's remounting of its 2008 offering of "Twelfth Night." Presented as the summer's Free-for-All event -- 22 free-admission performances in Sidney Harman Hall -- this yuk-yuk treatment of Shakespeare's subtle comedy favors only the most obvious styles of humor and treats the romantic underpinnings as love matches of a flippant and silly variety.

Director Rebecca Bayla Taichman's version for the most part has been faithfully restaged by Alan Paul, the company's new associate director (succeeding David Muse, who is taking over as head of Studio Theatre). Several of the original actors return for the run, and others prove to be estimable replacements, most notably the delightful Sarah Agnew as a young countess besotted with a man who is really a woman.

The play consists of two plots of divergent temperatures. The warmer one involves the disguise of Viola (Christina Pumariega) in the court of Duke Orsino (Gregory Wooddell) after the shipwreck involving her and twin brother Sebastian (Randy Harrison). The chillier story is set in the household of Agnew's Olivia, where her uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Chuck Cooper), and his confederates unleash a vicious practical joke on Olivia's snooty and clueless steward, Malvolio (Philip Goodwin).

"Twelfth Night" works best when a harmony is struck between the plots, when the gentle sexual confusion among the aristocrats cushions the impact of the abuse heaped on Malvolio. This version, however, achieves none of the desired equilibrium. It simply goes consistently for an easy sight gag or laugh, whether that entails a repetitive visual effect or a character passing wind.

All of the redundant conceits lacquered onto the 2008 version have been retained, and they are even more intrusive now. The practice, for instance, of dropping rose petals onto any character in the throes of a sexual swoon feels like cartoonish window dressing; it fails to illuminate any of the ideas about love and sexual identity with which Shakespeare is playing. "Twelfth Night" isn't so much an exploration of momentary passions as the deeper mysteries of attraction: What are the ineffable spiritual qualities in Viola that manage to captivate both an Orsino and an Olivia?

Relying on shopworn exhibitions -- the scene transitions are filled with dancers doing the tango across the curling floor of Riccardo Hernandez's set -- the production makes the lovers seem as shallow as the mischievous characters whose main task is to drive the odious Malvolio bonkers.

Although the 2008 edition was rescued by some piquant comic performances -- the pricelessly self-infatuated Malvolio of Ted van Griethuysen being the crucial saving grace -- the reconstituted production has lost some of that bite. (It even feels longer.) Among the characters in the Malvolio plot, only Nancy Robinette's Maria and Floyd King's Feste adjust with agility to the changing pitch of Shakespeare's bittersweet music.

Agnew, Wooddell and Pumariega, all new to this staging, acquit themselves well enough, given the constraints of the director's agenda. Pumariega achieves a winningly boyish countenance for her scenes as Orsino's aide Cesario, and Agnew brings saucy playfulness to a character sometimes portrayed as a bit of a stiff.

Accessorizing the production with billboard-size blowups of roses and alluring gowns in chartreuse and teal, Hernandez and costume designer Miranda Hoffman have gone to admirable lengths to give this "Twelfth Night" a chic varnish. But a veneer of Shakespeare is as rich as this one-note approach ever gets.

Twelfth Night

by William Shakespeare. Directed by Alan Paul, based on original direction by Rebecca Bayla Taichman. Lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound, Martin Desjardins; fight director, Rick Sordelet; choreographer, Daniel Pelzig; voice and text coach, Ursula Meyer. With Tom Story, J. Fred Shiffman, Todd Scofield, Larry Bull. About 2 hours 55 minutes. Through Sept. 5 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Visit or call 202-547-1122.

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