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Twelfth Night, the wistful comedy Shakespeare might’ve written as the entertainment for the concluding night of the Christmas revels sometime between 1599 and 1601, is, more than other Wool Shaxbeards, an unbreakable delivery system for delight. It may be possible to stage a bad version of it, in the same way that a competent band might, after ingesting enough mushrooms, find it within its power to render a completely disagreeable cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m Goin’ Down.” But both of these grim hypotheticals are exceedingly unlikely. Follow the recipe, and your Twelfth Night will end well.
So it goes without saying that Robert Richmond’s new, highly filigreed Twelfth Night at Folger Theatre isn’t the least bit bad. It lacks only some intangible quality of greatness. Coming so hard on the heels of Richmond’s stirring and revelatory Henry V at the Folger earlier this year, it feels ever so slightly like a letdown, an assemblage of individually sterling gears and cogs that somehow Voltron into a wristwatch that is merely, well, good. Performed beneath the unblinking gaze of a giant stained-glass disc courtesy of set designer Tony Cisek, the show bespeaks good taste more frequently than it does inspiration, the way the plays a few blocks north and west of the Folger, at Washington’s other big Shakespeare outfit, tend to do.
Or maybe the problem is that Richmond shows us his most breathtaking move right at the top: Behind a transparent violet curtain, we see loving twins Viola and Sebastian helping each other dress. This wordless sequence is scored by Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” (Joshua Morgan, who also appears in the role of Valentine and others, handles the piano-playing, offering a well-curated mix of 19th- and early 20th-century standards and original improvisations throughout the show.) When the shipwreck comes—here it’s meant to evoke the RMS Lusitania, the British luxury liner torpedoed and sank by a German U-boat in 1915, killing 1,200 people—the siblings are separated in the chaos, Viola yanked up and away to the water’s surface via a flight rig while Sebastian flails beneath until he is presumed drowned. It’s a bravura sequence, and I mean it as no slight against the actors when I say that nothing that happens once they actually open their mouths feels quite as magical.
Richmond peppers the narrative with other wordless interludes, all played for comedy, with various characters chasing each other around the stage with jerky Chaplinesque movements while Morgan plays Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” at an ever-accelerating tempo.
The best performances come in the margins: Louis Butelli’s Feste, agreeably less buffoonish than in other tellings; Tonya Beckman’s conniving Maria; Craig Wallace’s riotous Sir Toby Belch; James Konicek’s feckless Sir Andrew Aguecheek; and Chris Genebach’s loyal, possibly lovestruck Antonio. Against this colorful crowd, of course the stodgy, highborn Orsino and Olivia (Michael Brusasco and Rachel Pickup, respectively) seem kind of bland. But our heroine, Viola (Emily Trask), is almost upstaged, too.
The one character who can never be upstaged in Twelfth Night is Malvolio, here a bowler-wearing butler played by Richard Sheridan Willis, who can pull a laugh just by flicking his eyes. Costume designer Mariah Hale has brought the Bard’s terrifying description of the supercilious servant’s “yellow stockings, cross gartered” to eye-offending life. Along with a bumblebee-striped knit onesie, she completes Malvolio’s ensemble with a string of pearls, for some reason. In a nice touch, Willis drops his educated accent once Malvolio is brought low by a disproportionately cruel prank.
Cisek’s all-gilded-everything set design encases Morgan’s electric piano inside the skeletal, see-through body of a grand piano, and that curious structure becomes Malvolio’s prison house once he’s locked up as a madman. That the cell is more or less coffin-sized, and impossible either to sit or stand in, makes the imputations of torture all the more explicit. The cruelty of Malvolio’s fate is in the text, of course; directors can amplify or soften it at their discretion. I like that in this version Richmond has Maria, Toby, and Andrew confront him with crosses and bibles, as though he’s possessed. Willis plays along, flicking his tongue and hissing at the three of them.
Given that the mistaken-identity and woman-impersonating-man contrivances Shakespeare so often used—at the same time, in the case of Twelfth Night—are absurd on their stubbled face, it hardly matters whether Viola and Sebastian resemble each other, but in this case they do. It’s the kind of detail to which this production is mercilessly attentive.