Regional Reviews: Boston
Belleman's sly delivery breathes life into this new production, which brings together the talents of Lyric Stage Company of Boston and Actors' Shakespeare Project. In a season that features Jane Austen and a modern translation of Macbeth, ASP's Twelfth Night is their only traditional Shakespearean performance of the year, presented on the Lyric's thrust stage. Director Paula Plum, a regular of both companies, trims the cast to a nine-person ensemble with many familiar faces who (as is customary) present the verse with clarity and skill. But as fine as these actors are, this Twelfth Night never feels as recklessly romantic or boldly funny as it could.
For starters, there's not much chemistry among the mismatched lovers, who are all yearning for someone they cannot have. After surviving a shipwreck, Viola (Hayley Spivey) lands in the strange land of Illyria and disguises herself as the boy Cesario to work in the house of the Duke Orsino (Alejandro Simoes). Complications ensue when Orsino, desperate to woo the grieving Olivia (Samantha Richert), sends Cesario on his behalf, only for Olivia to develop feelings for the boy who isn't. Meanwhile, Viola's twin Sebastian (Dominic Carter) has been rescued by Antonio (Michael Forden Walker), who seems unusually devoted to the young man. Shakespeare's gender-bending, intertwined sets of lovers feel refreshingly modern; these characters fall for each other quickly and wholeheartedly, many times in the span of a single scene.
Of the lovers, only Richert as a comically off-kilter Olivia plays the heightened passions at stake. She makes her first entrance soused from the night before, teetering down the stairs, a combination of tragic mourning and comic hangover. Richert plays everything a little off-beat, seemingly astonished by every twist and turn of the plot, like she can't quite believe what's happening. She makes Olivia's impetuous marriage to the innocent Sebastian (whom she mistakes for Viola) entirely believable. Incidentally, Olivia also gets the wildest costumesher fringed flapper dresses and Jean Harlow platinum wig, while deliciously showy, feel like they've been imported from a flashier production that leans more heavily on the Jazz Era setting than this one does.
The rest of Twelfth Night is devoted to the raucous antics of Sir Toby Belch (Bobbie Steinbach), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Simoes, doubling up), and the wily Maria (Jennie Israel) as they play a cruel prank on Olivia's prissy servant Malvolio (Richard Snee). Steinbach's Toby is a big and brassy ruffian, complete with pencil mustache and an ample gut, and Simoes matches her with a goofy cluelessness. But Snee's Malvolio is less imperious and far less delusional than others I've seen, and I found it hard to laugh at their mistreatment of him. This Malvolio is vain, sure, but mostly harmless; he's no match for the louche company that abuses him. I had to side with Snee when he vows revenge in the final scene; Toby and his friends' tactics aren't charming or amusing in this production, just cruel.
If neither half of the plot fully sings, Plum does find smart ways to let the music play on. The show begins with dancers on the deck of a ship before it sinks, and ends with the lovers finally partnered. There's a brief bacchanalian parade where the actors cavort playing instruments and crashing cymbals, a Mardi Gras-like celebration that suggests Illyria has been relocated somewhere closer to New Orleans. The music of George Gershwin and other laid-back twenties standards underscore scenes over the jukebox. And the performance concludes with a vibrant rendition of "Hey, ho, the wind and the rain" led by the women of the cast.
Twelfth Night holds up as one of Shakespeare's most spirited and subversive takes on love and marriage, where the leads all (except for Viola) end up with someone other than the person they pined for. The dark shadow of Malvolio's final reappearance has always been there, souring the happy ending we expected. Yet I missed the spark in this production that would make us more invested in these clowns and their follies. To echo the Duke, 'tis not so sweet now as it was before.
Twelfth Night, through April 28, 2019, at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston MA. Tickets can be purchased at lyricstage.com, by phone at 617-585-5678, or in person at the Lyric Stage box office.