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“If words be the food of psychology, shut up,” is the operating principle of Twelfth Night, Synetic Theater’s 10th Shakespeare adaptation denuded of the part we’re most certain was contributed by the glover’s son William Shakespeare: its verse. All its spoken words, actually.
I’ve always been skeptical of this widely acclaimed project—Synetic’s previous Shakespeares-on-mute have won a combined 18 Helen Hayes Awards and garnered many more nominations—never more than in the case of Twelfth Night. It’s my favorite Shakespeare play, a silly comedy that makes profound observations about grief; a symmetrical yarn about displaced twins in which everything is out of proportion to everything else; a revenge story in which the punishment is far crueler and more permanent than the crime. Everything is balanced and nothing is fair.
Is it still all of those things when you cut out its tongue and force it to dance? Mostly, yes. This Synetic production still feels like a cover version of Twelfth Night to me, unreformed wordist that I am (then again, any version of a four-century-old play, no matter how stodgily orthodox, is a cover version to the 10th or 100th power). But it looks great and it sounds great (there’s music throughout) and like any good cover, it renews your interest in the source.
This Twelfth Night is set in the era of Prohibition and silent film and is staged as a movie-with-a-play. (The Shakespeare Theatre did a golden-age-of-Hollywood treatment of the comedy Twelfth Night most closely resembles, As You Like It, in 2009.) Ben Cunis’ Feste and Vato Tsikurishvili’s Fabian hover on the margins of each scene, hunched over a movie camera. It’s another layer in what’s already a visually frenetic production, but it underlines the point that all of Twelfth Night’s most iconic scenes involve someone performing for someone else.
Phil Charlwood’s set resembles a cavernous soundstage. Reels of celluloid film are recurring props. The play’s opening shipwreck is cleverly reproduced as a miniature effect: The “filmmakers” splash a hoagie-sized model of the ship into an aquarium as though they were children playing in the bath while, a few feet to their left, the rest of the ensemble enacts the life-and-death battle on the deck of the boat, eventually succumbing to the waves.
Later, when Olivia refuses Duke Orsino’s love letters and reflects instead upon her brother’s funeral, we see the flashback performed live behind a scrim, while a flickering light and the hum of a projector make it seem like we’re watching a home movie. The notion that she would have filmed herself wailing over his corpse is a clever visual replacement for the play’s suggestion that excessive mourning can curdle into a sort of vanity.
On the infrequent occasions that dialogue is required, it’s communicated via silent film–style title cards. (“I smell a device!”) Company composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze has a credit for original music, but it’s difficult to recall anything unfamiliar given the frequent appearance of big-band standards like Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” which scores the all-hands-on-deck Charleston finale. Irakli Kavsadze’s Malvolio, having already suffered the humiliation of being misdirected—via filmed message rather than forged correspondence—to don “yellow stockings, cross-gartered” and try to seduce his lady Olivia, can’t embarrass himself any more by sitting at the back of the stage playing air drums. Given that he spends most of the play shaming the other characters for their pursuit of visceral pleasures, there’s a simple joy in watching him do that.
As always, the fluid athleticism of the Synetic ensemble is a wonder to behold. Sebastian (Alex Mills), the twin brother to our heroine Viola (company co-founder Irina Tsikurishvili) rolls his torso around his neck as though it’s had a few more points of articulation installed as an aftermarket upgrade. All of the performers, even the rare roly-poly one like Kavsadze, move like they’re less in thrall to stupid old gravity than the rest of us.
But even within that uniform style of movement, character-based variations abound. Philip Fletcher’s stiff-backed Orsino slinks around with wounded dignity after Olivia rejects him. As Olivia, Kathy Gordon expresses the character’s unease with her high rank, and her clumsy sexuality once the appearance of Cesario (who is really Viola in drag, you’ll recall) dispels her clouds of grief with the sunshine of desire.
Earlier plays from which Shakespeare appropriated much of Twelfth Night’s plot seemed to reinforce the importance of decorum and social order. In inventing the prude Malvolio only to denigrate him and send him to the madhouse, Shakespeare seems to endorse the pursuit of merriment as a life-affirming force. Synetic’s fleet, energetic interpretation may have cut his words, but they’ve captured his meaning well enough.