"Twelfth Night," which opened last night at the Warner Theatre, is Shakespeare as the vast majority likes it -- attractively cast, persuasively acted, handsomely costumed -- and there's nary a gimmick in sight.
The production has been mounted by the Stratford Festival of Canada, which will alternate it with "King Lear" for an all-too-limited engagement through Feb. 2. When less accomplished productions brazenly dig in for weeks on end, the brevity of the Canadians' visit seems something of a pity. Besides offering three civilized hours of romance and merriment, the company is also providing us with a salutary reminder. And none too soon.
You see, most of our homegrown Shakespeare productions -- those to come out of the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, Arena Stage and the American National Theater -- simply refuse to play it straight. In the cause of originality, novelty or -- perish the thought -- relevance, they tend to tailor the text to a preordained concept. So we get an Art Deco "Much Ado About Nothing" set on a 1930s ocean liner or a "Henry IV, Part I," in which mannequins mingle with humans and one overtaxed actor finds himself playing both Falstaff and King Henry.
While there's nothing wrong in departing from tradition (we never would have had that dazzling "Midsummer Night's Dream" in a white box if Peter Brook hadn't decided to take a hard look at the play), tradition has been getting the short end of the stick lately. Then along comes this "Twelfth Night" to show us that Shakespeare doesn't necessarily need gussying up. The stories are quite enchanting on their own terms. The characters don't have to sport rubber noses and baggy pants to interest us. Illyria can be Illyria, after all.
What matters more than anything else is a cast that can speak Shakespeare's lines with clarity and grace; move with ease and alacrity; and listen with conviction. In that, the Stratford Company appears to be blessed. It's amazing how quickly Shakespeare falls into place under the circumstances. Whole passages of "Twelfth Night" that have previously struck me as impenetrable to the modern ear made perfect sense last night. Even those hoary romantic mix-ups looked surprisingly fresh.
Orsino, you recall, loves Olivia. But Olivia loves Viola, who's just survived a shipwreck, disguised herself as a man and entered Orsino's service. For her part, Viola loves Orsino, but her breeches get in the way. Then her twin brother, Sebastian, turns up, hopelessly scrambling the cards. The Canadian players approach the confusion with full and open hearts as if to prove the age-old saw that love is blind.
Sure, we can see that Viola is a woman under her page's togs, and that she and Sebastian are not quite, as the Shakespeare put it, "an apple, cleft in two." But we also understand why the characters don't see what's under their noses: Sweet passion has them in its grip. The toll it takes on the beguilingly modest Seana McKenna (Viola), the strapping Colm Feore (Orsino) and Maria Ricossa (an Olivia graciously battling the itch to run her fingers up and down a man), makes for some very savory moments, during which comedy and romance coexist in natural harmony.
But there is another, lower, side to "Twelfth Night" and this production, originally directed by David Giles and restaged for the company's American tour by John Hirsch, handles it with equal aplomb. While love is struggling to bloom, Sir Toby Belch (James Blendick), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Richard McMillan), and Feste, the fool (Edward Atienza) are trying to have a rowdy time and succeeding quite nicely.
The principal object of their pranks is that old sourpuss, Malvolio (Nicholas Pennell), whose instinctive reponse to a world of cakes and ale is a downcast mouth and a disapproving eye. He pays dearly for his Puritanism, and if there's a potential problem with "Twelfth Night," that's it. The ridiculing of Malvolio has got to be funny, but you can't take the tomfoolery too far: Push Malvolio too hard and a mocked man turns into a broken man. It seems to me this production stops just at the right point -- just before the high-spirited becomes the mean-spirited. Atienza's splendidly whimsical clowning helps a lot to maintain the proper balance. But Pennell also holds the line -- suggesting that Malvolio's vanity, not necessarily his mental equilibrium, has momentarily been imperiled.
While this "Twelfth Night" is not as lavishly adorned as some, the pleasing unit set and stylishly muted costumes, both designed by Christina Poddubiuk, are in keeping with a production that keeps the play in the forefront. That, too, is a welcome assertion of priorities that our local theaters might ponder. Spectacle is the icing. But first, you've got to bake the cake.
TWELFTH NIGHT, sw,-2 sk,2 by William Shakespeare. Directed by David Giles; restaged by John Hirsch; costumes and sets, Christina Poddubiuk; lighting, Michael J. Whitfield; music, Louis Applebaum. With Colm Feore, Seana McKenna, James Blendick, Patricia Collins, Richard McMillan, Edward Atienza, Maria Ricossa, Nicholas Pennell, Ernest Harrop. At the Warner Theatre through Feb. 2.