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Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s sturdiest comedy, is also his most sour. Its symmetrical plot gives us identical twin siblings of different genders who each fear the other dead, two cases of unrequited love, and scenes that mirror one another throughout. The only unbalanced thing in it is the cruel punishment inflicted upon Malvolio, Lady Olivia’s priggish, teetotaling chief servant. He deserves some comeuppance, sure. But not to be declared insane and jailed—this time, in a pet carrier.
Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night as an amusement for its eponymous occasion, known to Christians as the Feast of the Epiphany. On this night, prosperous Elizabethan households would throw one last winter bachannal, during which the social hierarchy was relaxed and servants partied with their bosses. Supposedly you could get away with almost anything as long as you wore a mask. After Twelfth Night, Elizabethans would hunker down and wait for spring. And after Twelfth Night, spring never came again for the playwright, who, having reached his mid-thirties, left comedies foregrounding sex and romance behind to write tragedies. “Youth’s a stuff will not endure” and all.
Ethan McSweeny’s immersive new staging at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s cavernous Sidney Harman Hall arrives at the beginning of the holiday season, not the end, but it’s a good match for the lights and melancholy and travel and disappointment associated with this time of year. Illyria, the gloomy neverland in which Twelfth Night is set, here takes the form of a more workaday purgatory: An airport departures gate. It’s a bravura feat of design (by Lee Savage) that costs the show something in intimacy. This clash is on full view—or, uh, in full sound—early on, when Heath Saunders’ acoustic rendition (as Feste, the singing jester) of “The Book of Love” fights for aural space with the frightening sounds of a foundering… plane. That Magnetic Fields classic is one of a handful of contemporary-ish songs soulfully performed by Saunders. (The centuries-old ones for which Shakespeare wrote the lyrics into the script are set to new music by composer Lindsay Jones.)
After that promising beginning, the price of putting the audience in a waiting room for three hours starts to seem more dear. This is a play about people wanting things they can’t have, but this supersized production seems to promise we can have it all. McSweeny gives the broad—like 10 seats to a row in Economy class broad—comedy among Olivia’s household equal time as the love stories, though they are not of equal interest. He also reshuffles a few Act I scenes, delaying the introduction of Duke Orsino (Bhavesh Patel), who pines fruitlessly for Olivia (Hannah Yelland) while his servant Cesario (who is really Viola, our disguised heroine, played with great emotional dexterity by Antoinette Robinson) pines for him.
Costume designer Jennifer Moeller makes it easy for those in coach seats to discern who’s who: She explains why no one can tell twins Viola and Sebastian apart by dressing Robinson and Paul Deo, Jr., respectively, in matching emerald-colored suits and heavy-framed glasses. She puts Orsino and his scooter-riding kinsmen in paisley suits that Prince might’ve worn onstage. Drunks Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch (Jim Lichtscheidl and Andrew Weems) are styled as expired hippies, and their companion Fabian is reimagined as a child in PJs. (Koral Kent and Tyler Bowman alternate in the role.) Emily Townley gets to bring the comic gifts more frequently employed at Woolly Mammoth (where she’s a longtime company member) to the role of maid Maria, the architect of Malvolio’s humiliation. The distinguishing feature of her costume, I am duty-bound to report, is a neckline so plunging it may not have reached the ground yet.
As the imperious Malvolio, STC stalwart Derek Smith hits all the familiar notes, and you even pity him a little once he gets so disproportionately owned. But it’s Saunders, a seasoned but new-to-D.C. actor, who owns the night. He’s undaunted by the big hall. Whenever he shows up, it’s like someone gave you a key to the Admirals Club, and you can finally hear yourself think.
610 F St. NW. $25–$118. (202) 547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org