I would like to feel more strongly about "Twelfth Night," which opened Wednesday night at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger.
This is, after all, the company's final show under the leadership of artistic producer John Neville-Andrews. Next month, Michael Kahn takes over and some fairly wide-ranging changes can be expected. "Twelfth Night" is the last time we'll see this particular group of actors -- some have been at the Folger for years -- together on a stage.
It would be nice to say they are having a last hurrah and that parting, in this instance, makes for sweet sorrow. But there seems to be no particularly compelling reason for this production; it is being done because it is being done.
For those who have never seen "Twelfth Night," this version, directed by Gavin Cameron-Webb, will serve as a pleasant enough introduction. It takes relatively few liberties with the text, is often pretty to look at and manages to bring a certain clarity to the tangled story of mismatched lovers and drunken revelry in Illyria.
Those familiar with the play, however, will find few fresh accents or original insights. Some of the actors come off better than others, but it cannot be claimed that years of working together have molded them into a cohesive ensemble.
When you're duty-bound to the Bard, as the Folger is, some productions are bound to be dutiful. You can't have revelations every time. Certain directors are able to confront a Shakespearean text, pull it apart and reassemble it in a way that is particularly apt for our times. Cameron-Webb seems willing to settle for the dramatic status quo. His work, simple and straightforward, ends up looking innocuous.
Set designer Russell Metheny has enhanced the Folger's basic Elizabethan stage with boxwood bushes and hedges, and mirrored the walls and the doors, thereby encouraging the latent narcissism of Shakespeare's characters. Somewhat more effort has gone into Gail Brassard's 17th-century costumes, which are frankly sumptuous and, in the case of Sir Toby Belch and his gang of pranksters, sumptuously ridiculous.
Shakespeare's plot plays the low comedy antics of Sir Toby (the dependable Emery Battis) and crew off the romantic misunderstandings engendered by the fair Viola (Sybil Lines), who, disguised as a page, inadvertently inspires the love of Olivia (Marilyn Caskey).
In general, the cast renders the amorous discombobulations more successfully than the farcical hijinks. But that may be largely because Richard Hart, an actor whose range actually appears to shrink with each new portrayal, has the fairly pivotal role of Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Dressed in screaming yellow and wearing a wig May Britt might have killed for, Hart is shriekingly inept. His mere presence seriously dampens the far more enjoyable contributions of Catherine Flye (Maria), a welcomely subdued Jim Beard (Fabian) and Floyd King (Malvolio).
King, his cheeks drawn in puritanical disapprobation, blossoms into a fatuous madman when he is tricked into thinking Olivia pines for him. It's one of those excessive transformations the actor has always handled with controlled aplomb, and I can only hope there will be a berth for him in the new Folger company.
Among the lovers, Edward Gero discovers a penchant for self-dramatization in the heartsick Orsino, an interesting approach that more alert direction would have further emphasized with profit. Lines makes a serviceable Viola, although her voice wobbles more than ever. (Chalk it up to the equivocal situations into which Viola -- loving Orsino, but loved by Olivia -- keeps stumbling.) Caskey, who has some of the late Judy Holliday's ability to play it dumb and smart, helpless and canny, at the same time, is the one you can't help watching, however.
Michael W. Howell does nimbly by Feste, the clown, until the script obliges him to torment the imprisoned Malvolio. By today's standards, there's not a lot of good humor in the scene, but what little there is eludes Howell. His predicament is symptomatic of the whole evening -- which pleasantly services some aspects of the play but lets others slip by. The best productions present themselves as an indivisible whole; lesser efforts, like this one, make us conscious of the parts.
Kahn has his work cut out for him if the Shakespeare Theatre is ever to accede to the ranks of the first-rate. It has been through three artistic regimes now, and while it is getting better by fits and starts, it is still a long way from establishing a coherent Shakespearean tradition of its own. Meanwhile, the current company exits on an indistinct note.
Maybe not with a bang, but not with a whimper, either.
Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Gavin Cameron-Webb. Set, Russell Metheny; costumes, Gail Brassard; lighting, Allen Lee Hughes. With Edward Gero, Sybil Lines, Emery Battis, Catherine Flye, Richard Hart, Michael W. Howell, Marilyn Caskey, Floyd King, Michael Tolaydo, Michael Kramer, Jim Beard. At the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger through July 20.