Trending Clownward: Viola and Feste find respite from her crazy love life.
Trending Clownward: Viola and Feste find respite from her crazy love life.

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A powerful older man develops a confounding attraction to a youth in his employ. A middle-aged man and a 27-year-old woman confront, after years of silence, the fallout from an affair they carried on, furtively and abortively, some 15 years before.

One story’s a fluorescent-lit nightmare told in the brutal rhythms of contemporary vernacular, the other a rose-strewn romance framed in equally flowery verse. And both, in one way or another, acknowledge that the boundaries between innocence and experience, love and compulsion are nowhere near as simple as our morals and our mores would have

us believe.

In Twelfth Night, of course, the boy who inspires such a perplexing passion is really a young woman in disguise, so the duke who tumbles for her is just picking up on some comically mixed signals. And make no mistake, Rebecca Bayla Taichman’s exuberant production for the Shakespeare Theatre Company leans richly on the laughs—though the show still, inevitably, comes laced with its share of rue.

The lovely Countess Olivia, mourning her brother and father in serene, sable-clad solitude? Veanne Cox imagines her as a high-spirited woman who’s been crushed by grief, an impetuous thing muffled up in petticoats and veils, startled by her own aliveness when badly behaved relatives, or delusional servants, or the strange attractions of that same disguised young gentlewoman intrude.

Leave aside for now the rude frolics of Rick Foucheux’s slovenly pinchpenny Sir Toby and J. Fred Shiffman’s flatulent Fabian, the romantic follies of Tom Story’s dance-happy dandy Sir Andrew and Ted van Griethuysen’s pompous Malvolio, even the self-indulgent love-swoons of Christopher Innvar’s peremptory Duke Orsino, who imagines himself madly in love with the countess even as his attraction to the disguised Viola grows.

Oh, they’re all deftly handled, to be sure, but what drives Taichman’s staging is Olivia’s unbending, her surrender to a passion the audience knows is all a comic misunderstanding but which is nonetheless a lifeline for a woman who might have surrendered to her sadness. Cox plays that capitulation with a mix of great-lady grandiosity and lovestruck slapstick that shouldn’t work, but that does work, and marvelously too. It’s a performance, precisely tuned down to the curve of an arm and the timing of a turn, that gracefully makes room for the play’s profound melancholies and its fleet-footed nonsense alike—and one that culminates in what’s probably the single funniest pratfall you’ll ever see anyone make in a wedding dress.

It’s a lovely dress, too, a whole bridal shop’s worth of frothy white, and it’s the natural capper for Miranda Hoffman’s sumptuous but simple costume scheme for Olivia. (To describe it more fully would spoil the cumulative effect of the whole, so let’s just say that on the spectrum between black and white, Hoffman hilariously finds room for a bilious puce, just in time for love’s first stomach-churning squeeze.)

Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design proves similarly simple and similarly eloquent, washing the stage in chill blues and warm blushes as the mood demands, until everything comes together on Riccardo Hernandez’s glacial gunmetal waveform of a set in a shower of rose petals that pile up onstage in drifts.

They’re a bit like autumn leaves, those deconstructed flowers, romantic and forlorn at once, a reminder that although high spirits have prevailed and wonder is in the air, although Shakespeare has paired off his principals as tidily as the conventions of comedy require, life is usually too complicated for happy to last ever after. Taichman’s lovers will be sad again. They don’t know it yet, but the playwright does—and so his characters cede the stage at the last to Floyd King’s wise old fool Feste, whose lonely apologia speaks of the wind and the rain and the age of the world. And somehow, on a cold winter’s night, his song makes bearable the prospect of life’s unchanging rhythms.