“Twelfth Night” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF).
Director Darko Tresnjak, an Oregon Shakespeare Festival neophyte, comes to the festival with a long list of credits from other top theaters, including several opera companies. His operatic pedigree shows in this crowd-pleasing, stagy Twelfth Night, full of formally stylized sentiment and slapstick sight gags.
The production is impeccably paced, ingeniously mounted and lavishly costumed (in Louis XVI chic). There’s even a strolling woodwind-and-violin duo to offer up little squibs of Mozart opera themes as though in commentary upon the onstage action.
Designer David Zinn’s stage set – a kind of skateboard park made of what looks like boxwood topiary – underscores the sense of operatic formalism. Instead of entries and exits from the wings, many of the characters make their first appearance diva-style, dramatically backlit in a lozenge-shaped frame, stage center.
Lost in the operatic translation is some of the play’s language and psychological nuance. With so much emphasis on high-gloss production, Shakespeare’s actual lines all too often get thrown away: warbled, chirped, mumbled or simply buried under audience cheers and laughter. Modern opera houses at least project translated libretti around the margins of the proscenium; it might yet come to that in Ashland.
But until then, those in the audience who know their Shakespeare can get off on Tresnjak’s novel treatment of such a classic script. And the rest of us should have no trouble catching the drift of the story.
It starts out as tale of co-dependency. Well-born Olivia, in over-the-top mourning for her late father and brother, has foresworn the company of any men outside her immediate household. So she rebuffs all overtures from the local count, Orsino. The count perversely revels in his aesthetic languor as a spurned suitor.
A shipwrecked castaway noblewoman, Viola, disguises herself as a pageboy in Orsino’s court and becomes the preferred go-between for the count’s hapless suit. Olivia falls in love-at-first-sight with the supposed pageboy. Viola, for her part, is secretly smitten with the count, her putative master.
Both loves are hopeless since, as far as Orsino is concerned, the pageboy is male, whereas Viola alone knows that she is as much a woman as Olivia. The knot is untangled when Viola’s twin brother, presumed lost in the same shipwreck, washes up onshore alive and feisty. After some bait-and-switch drollery of mistaken identity, Viola wins her count and Olivia beds a studlier look-alike of her beloved pageboy.
All this courtly love intersects with a bawdier backstairs subplot that pits Olivia’s various hangers-on — her chambermaid, her dipsomaniac cousin and an oafish swain – against her snooty butler, Malvolio (Christopher Liam Moore). Fed up with the steward’s priggery, the backstairs trio forge a letter to convince Malvolio that his mistress is secretly in love with him and longs to wed him if only he’d learn to smile more and shed his dour black tunic for something sprightlier, namely: yellow stockings. He attempts such a remake and winds up branded as a madman, subject to full-on Gitmo treatment – caged, blindfolded and heckled by unseen enemies.
The scene where Malvolio first swallows the bait is a show-stealer. He stumbles upon the forged billet doux and soliloquizes – or so he thinks – about its implications for his social and romantic prospects. In fact he’s far from alone. All of Olivia’s retainers eavesdrop somewhere onstage, crouched behind topiaries or hanging from chandeliers. The scene climaxes when Malvolio, as per Olivia’s supposed instructions, essays a smile. It’s a dire and painful thaw, like the collapse of an icecap.
Climate change of a gentler sort marks the sweet sirocco of Viola’s infatuation. Her cross-dressing masquerade and ornate speeches could have made for a brittle, stilted performance. But Ashland newcomer Brooke Parks brings an irresistible warmth to the part. The sexual ambivalence of the role only enhances its appeal. After all, in Shakepeare’s time Viola would have been played by a boy playing a girl playing a boy. No wonder by the final scene pretty much everyone onstage, of whatever gender, has fallen in love with her.
No gender ambiguity, on the other hand, about Miriam Laube’s hyper-feminine Olivia. She’s a glittering, unstable alloy of Unobtainium (vis a vis Orsino) and Licentium (a propos the castaway twins). She brings to the performance the same giggling, wriggling, kittenish sexiness that has marked her star turns in a whole string of recent Ashland productions. This persona can wear thin, though, and Laube’s mannered delivery occasionally swallows up some of her own best lines.
Shakespeare’s words come through in all their poetry and wit in Michael Elich’s portrayal of Olivia’s court jester, Feste. Hardly a protagonist in the action, he nevertheless recurs in scene after scene, twitting the blue-bloods, goading the buffoons, cadging coins and setting the mood. In motley and whiteface, the versatile Elich is called upon, by turns, to banter, declaim, contort acrobatically and even sing in a fine (if somewhat nasal) baritone.
He plays the role not for belly laughs but for irony – a winsome enough fool, except when he’s baiting Malvolio. Then the latent cruelty of the script flares forth, fleetingly, only to be subsumed back into the operatic veneer of this high-gloss “Twelfth Night.”
Lincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.
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