When the Puritan Malvolio is funny, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night works. It's an odd comedy, full of dark emotions and motives, sexual ambiguities, deliberate humiliations and mistaken identity. In some productions, these themes are played seriously and the whole show falls apart. Fortunately, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival production finds exactly the right tone in its choice production. And best of all, Malvolio is hilarious.
Director Joel G. Fink drapes his actors in Victorian finery and places them on a cartoon noir set. In Shakespeare's time, the feast of epiphany (which occurs twelve days after Christmas, giving the play its name) was a time for bawdy celebrations and the mocking of conventions. Fink illustrates the theme by using cardboard Christmas trees and setting Shakespeare's raucous lyrics to the melodies of traditional carols. And the cartoonish drawings of a Victorian house provide the perfect surroundings for the mean and merry pranks of the play's jokesters: Sir Toby Belch, Feste the Fool, and Maria, the Countess Olivia's servant.
The Duke Orsino is desperately in love with the reclusive Olivia, who is in mourning for her brother and refuses all suitors. At the same time, lovely young Viola washes up on the local shore after a shipwreck, certain her twin brother, the mirror image of herself, has been drowned. The spunky Viola dons male dress, dubs herself Cesario, and seeks employment in Orsino's household as his personal servant. Naturally, she falls in love with her employer, who fails to note his servant's extreme devotion and sends him/her off to court Olivia for him. Olivia falls for Cesario (oops), and so the eternal triangle of unrequited love is formed.
Meanwhile, Olivia's uncle Toby plots with Maria, Feste and a chickenhearted dimwit named Sir Andrew Aguecheek to humiliate Olivia's steward, the pretentious, overbearing Malvolio. They leave a "love" letter for him, forged in Olivia's hand, telling him to smile constantly in her presence and be rude to her kinsmen. When he comes, smiling grotesquely, dressed in cross-gartered yellow stockings and thinking that she loves him, Olivia has him locked up as a lunatic.
One of the great delights of this comedy is the ingenious, preposterous way in which Shakespeare unties the knots of fate. Viola's twin turns up and Olivia mistakes him for Cesario, marrying him on the spot. Orsino is then free to fall for Viola. Sir Toby, a drunk, marries Maria the maid in a wild mockery of the gentlefolk's marriages, and Malvolio, who has been tormented almost beyond endurance, swears vengeance on everybody. It makes you wish for Twelfth Night, Part Deux.
Fink masterfully illuminates the play's meanderings without losing the comic vision. He places enough emphasis on Viola's boyishness to highlight the ambiguities of gender and the mixed messages about sexuality and identity meant to defy convention. And the director's casting is almost, but not quite, impeccable.
The best news is a stunning performance by A. Bryan Humphrey as Malvolio. Humphrey's comic interpretation of the role is witty and perceptive. At the end of the play, once Malvolio has been released, Humphrey allows one brief moment of self-knowledge to flit across his face, which he instantly buries: a brilliant expose of the mind of a hypocrite.
The bad news is that the key comedy of the fool, Feste, is almost lost in Erik Sandvold's murky reading. Sandvold unaccountably turns the feisty Feste into a doddering old man. He sings well, but the music doesn't make up for the wet-blanket performance.
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William Westenberg draws Orsino in such firm strokes that an audience member can't help but understand the self-absorbed blindness of the character. Orsino's ego makes it hard for him to see what is going on right under his nose--Viola's love and Olivia's lack of interest.
Christina Chang as the sweet Viola is tender, intelligent and always appealing. Chanelle Schaffer's superb, complex Olivia is all ladylike cunning and grace. Randy Colburn isn't quite right as the nasty drunkard Sir Toby--his cruelty seems a bit too deliberate to reconcile with the character's foolishness. Vivian Manning's sturdy Maria is never quite hilarious but is always comprehensible--no small trick with Shakespearean English.
This Twelfth Night revels in its own juicy vision of romantic love and all its fallacies, pretensions and joyful expectations. Always, just around the corner of every scene, Shakespeare reminds us of--and Fink underscores for us--the fleeting nature of youth and all the pleasures thereof.