TWELFTH NIGHT -- At the Folger through July 27.
There is perhaps nothing more difficult in doing Shakespeare than the kind of exquisite simplicity that the Folger Theatre Group has put into its new production of "Twelfth Night, or What You Will."
It's no great feat to make up far-fetched modern interpretations to get around Shakespearean complexities. Nor is it as strenuous as it sometimes looks to deal with puzzling parts of the comedies from a false position above, looking down on them as archaic buffonery. What is hard to figure that Shakespeare knew what he was doing, figure out what that could have been, and then do it.
This production, directed by Louis W. Scheeder, gets its comedy as well as fresh meaning from bringing the text triumphantly to life.There is lots of originality, but no tricks to avoid the problems.
And as great as "Twelfth Night" is -- one of its distractions is that the lines have now become wall-to-wall book titles -- it is full of dramatic problems. The romantic characters begin and end the most serious emotions amazingly easily. They all cheerfully end up marrying people they didn't want or who didn't want them. And the comic characters are involved in a sub-plot with decidedly vicious overtones.
In most "Twelfth Night"s, there are either solemnly over-analyzed or skimmed over as weaknesses in the play. But this beautifully integrated production suggests a coherent explanation.
With the strong viewpoint of the wordly-wise fool, played with layered wit by Floyd King, observing the enchanting and enthusiastic naivete of Ellen Newman as Viola, Glynis Bell as Olivia and Count Stovall as the Duke, one can see the play as a study of posing.
The duke is posing at being in love with someone he hardly knows; Viola and Olivia pose at mourning their respective brothers, and then drop their supposed grief without a thought, to plunge into the pose of being hopelessly in love with people they just met. All this is shown as the harmless and attractive posturing of adorable people who can afford to indulge themselves.
But the posing of Olivia's steward, Malvolio, as played by David Cromwell, seems malevolent as well as ridiculous. You can see why the drunken Sir Toby Belch, the silly Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the naughty Maria -- deliciously played by Earle Edgerton, Ralph Cosham and Mikel Lambert -- go after him, cruelly using his delusions to trap him. The posturing of the gentry does no harm to those below, but ambitious and cynical posing done from the wrong part of the social scale is a threat. Fittingly, they leave him to pose by himself in the dark.