Twelfth Night begins with the lovestruck Count Orsino ordering up music to match his pleasurably melancholy mood. When his "If music be the food of love, play on" is answered by cheerful calypso sounds and he proceeds to practice a few dance steps, you know you're in the hands of either a very daring and sure-handed director, or one who doesn't have a clue what the play's about. Unfortunately, it turns out that Robert Cohen falls into the latter category.
Sometimes it seems the Colorado Shakespeare Festival is busily perfecting a whole new genre: Shakespeare by and for people who don't really like Shakespeare. Every year, a couple of directors announce that they've breathed new life into some boring old warhorse of a play by coming up with a new theme or locale -- as if Shakespearean directors hadn't been doing that for a couple of centuries. Having decided that The Taming of the Shrew, say, should take place in 1950s America (which actually worked) or Much Ado About Nothing in the Old West (which partially worked) or that King Richard III should reign over a world that combines aspects of Nazi Germany with costumes from Blade Runner, the director proceeds to mine the text for references that justify his choice. Or gaps where he can insert tasty bits of color. Which is precisely ass-backwards. Good directors may experiment with time and place, but they take their cues from the play itself rather than superimposing a concept over it. So when Laurence Olivier films The Merchant of Venice and sets it in the 1860s, with the men wearing top hats and pinstriped trousers, it's because he wants to emphasize the themes of trading and mercantilism that dominate the script. This Twelfth Night is set in the Caribbean, for no observable reason.
The female protagonist of Twelfth Night is Viola, one of those Shakespearean heroines who combine intelligence, strength and resilience with vulnerability and a gift for steadfast love. A storm at sea washes her onto the shores of Illyria and -- she believes -- kills her twin brother, Sebastian. She puts on men's clothes and joins Count Orsino's household as a servant. Pretty soon she falls in love with the count. But Orsino loves Olivia, a beautiful woman who's mourning the death of her own brother and refuses to return his love. He sends Viola, now called Cesario, to do his courting for him. Thinking Viola's a man, Olivia promptly falls in love with her.
Twelfth Night, or What You Will Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in rotation with The Winter's Tale and Othello through August 12, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado campus, Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org.
The subplot concerns the farcical goings-on in Olivia's household, where her drunken cousin, Sir Toby Belch, entertains a shiftless friend called Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and the two of them, together with Maria, a lady in waiting, conspire to humiliate the narrow-minded, judgmental steward, Malvolio.
To give Cohen his due, his Twelfth Night pays full tribute to the hilarity of this subplot, providing lots of capering and a very funny duel with croquet mallets. But the production makes a farce of the scenes between Viola and Olivia, and entirely ignores the play's deeper themes of love, sorrow and redemption. Worst of all, it simply butchers the poetry.
My companion at the show had never read or seen Twelfth Night. As we walked to the car afterward, I asked if she'd enjoyed the evening. Yes, she said; it was funny. Was she moved when Viola and Sebastian -- each of whom had supposed the other dead -- were reunited? No, she said, mildly surprised; was she supposed to be? And did she hope as she watched that Viola would eventually win Orsino's love? No again.
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Her responses made sense. The actors had clearly been directed to go for laughs at the expense of everything else. So Viola gets rescued from the sea in high heels, changes sexily into men's clothes behind a screen, and apparently forgets her drowned brother the minute she's told there's an unmarried count around. Sarah Dandridge does well with the role's physical comedy throughout, but she never gives us anything of Viola's soul. Olivia can be played in many ways, and she needs some complexity. Her mistaken love for Viola/Cesario is obviously funny, but she expresses it in purely beautiful verse. A few years ago, Jadelynn Stahl -- who has since left to seek her fortune in New York -- created a lusciously sensual and imperious Olivia for Denver's Theatre Group. This was a woman clearly capable of seizing the recalcitrant world, turning it upside down and shaking whatever she wanted -- which at the moment happened to be the hapless Viola -- from its pockets. Aimee Phelan-Deconinck is as graceful and pretty an Olivia as I can imagine, but the temperament she shows is pure Paris Hilton, and her concern for her dead brother is no more sincere than Viola's for Sebastian.
Dennis R. Elkins as Belch, Matthew Erickson as Aguecheek and Bridgit Antoinette Evans as Maria bring a lot of energy to their roles, but the comic scenes need to be cleaner and better focused.
Despite everything, there is a reason to attend this Twelfth Night, and that's Sean Tarrant, whose Malvolio is one of the best I've seen. It's a tricky role. Malvolio is a mean-spirited buffoon, and you enjoy seeing him humiliated. But you're also privy to all his pathetic dreams and self-delusions, and you can't help pitying him when his humiliation is carried to the extreme. Tarrant takes us through every twist and turn of the character's thinking. He's tall and thin, and at first he seems a bit elegant for Malvolio, but he soon reveals a lithe, uninhibited zaniness worthy of John Cleese.
Still, there's something awfully wrong with a Twelfth Night that makes you care more about Malvolio than the two extraordinary women at the heart of the play.