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Shakespeare stagings come in all measures: good, bad, respectful, irreverent, silly—and sublime, which is the only word for the Twelfth Night that opened at the Folger Theatre last weekend. Its assembled talents meet the play’s rich blend of wit and wisdom, its music and its profound melancholy, with such understanding and such joy that the production fairly glows from the warmth of its humanity.
It’s long, to be sure, nearly three hours, but it positively skips along. Credit director Aaron Posner, co-founder of Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company, whose fleet adaptation interweaves a reduced and occasionally reordered text with a set of eloquently spare songs on the subjects of life and love. (They’re by Craig Wright, a shamelessly multitalented person who also is a member of an alt-rock band, writes plays, and scripts HBO’s Six Feet Under.)
And credit the cast, which is an astonishing ensemble if only because it’s so uniformly adept with the language—there’s no fumbling with the vocabulary here, no landing too hard on the Bard’s bawdy punch lines, no straining against the rhythm of the verse, just easy, unaffected delivery. That, and a sense of collective comic timing that’s almost supernaturally sharp: These players get guffaws with an eyebrow, a shift in posture, a drawn-out “Ohhh” of dawning awareness after precisely the right beat of befuddled silence.
Did I mention that they sing? And play, too—onstage instruments are part of the production’s thoroughgoing charm. Michael Glenn, who plays two small parts, coaxes a marvelously blue noise out of a guitar with a beer-bottle slide at one point. As the shipwrecked, disguised-in-male-drag Viola, Holly Twyford provides her own piano accompaniment in one of the first act’s most uproarious moments—though I hasten to add that the comedy comes not from her musical efforts but from the unlikeliness of the song’s style and the silent but pitch-perfect reaction of its target.
That would be the peerless Kate Eastwood Norris, whose Lady Olivia is at that moment being wooed by Twyford’s “Cesario,” who’s been deputized by the lord Orsino to tender the latter’s affections. The play’s central romantic obstacle and driving comic device is that Olivia falls pretty much instantly for Cesario/Viola, who’s already fallen, naturally, for Orsino (who, despite the fact that he thinks Cesario a barely postadolescent boy, has started to feel likewise). Shakespeare has great fun twisting them all into knots and then helping them untwist themselves, and he’s both perceptive and craft-masterful enough to thread a good deal of heart into their various longings and rebuffs. There’s a real echo of mortality in Viola’s words when she speaks, elliptically, of what her deception is costing her—”She never told her love, but let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud, feed on her damask cheek. She pined in thought, and with a green and yellow melancholy she sat like patience on a monument, smiling at grief.”
Twyford handles this declaration and other such earnestness without ever descending into ripe declamation or flowery maudlin. Norris negotiates Olivia’s more breathless realizations of passion with brief, giddy departures from what’s otherwise a portrayal of substantial grace and gravity. (The character has, after all, been mourning a dead father and brother.) Only Ian Merrill Peakes, as Orsino, strikes an off note now and then, breaking down in exaggerated melancholy every time he hears a love song—although that’s probably what Posner asked him to do. The idea may have been to send a signal about the shallowness of Orsino’s admittedly rather purple passion for Olivia, but the gag’s effect is to undermine his character; he’s the only one of Posner’s pie-eyed bunch you never really root for.
It’s a minor oddity in an otherwise splendidly conceived evening, however, and many missteps are forgivable when a director can otherwise liven up the old familiar scenes as smartly as Posner does. The most inspired example involves the players in Twelfth Night’s subplot, which follows a domestic civil war between Olivia’s major-domo, Malvolio, and her chambermaid; the latter enlists two hard-partying houseguests and her resident jester in a ruse that convinces the officious Malvolio that his mistress has developed a yen for him, and Posner’s reinvention of the scene in which the conspirators watch him discover the “evidence” of Olivia’s affection is quick and clever enough to keep the audience in paroxysms.
A good measure of that scene’s humor, neatly enough, comes from the way its delicious central gimmick itself abuses Malvolio’s dignity. It’s a neat parallel with one of the play’s chief concerns: Shakespeare lures you in, encourages you to laugh at the stuffy old fool, and then confronts you along with the conspirators with the injustice done him. Rick Foucheux’s Malvolio—who’d have thought to match that actor with that role?—is a masterpiece of plummy self-regard, which makes it all the more fun when Dori Legg’s saucy Maria, David Marks’ bibulous, Versace-clad Sir Toby, and James Sugg’s lanky, goofy Sir Andrew tangle him in his own garters.
And let’s not forget the fool Feste, the accomplice who might have known better. Sarah Marshall anchors the production, introducing various sections with threads of ruminative melody, and in her hands this all-important character is sage and hilarious and pungent and sweet in equal measure—which, come to think of it, is a pretty apt way to describe the entire package. It’s most assuredly a Twelfth Night to remember.
I wish I’d gotten a similar charge from The Last Seder, the smart, funny new Jennifer Maisel play that opened at Theater J over the weekend, but its various praiseworthy elements don’t come together quite as magically. It’s built on a clever concept, yes—a scattered clan headed by an indomitable mother and an Alzheimer’s-stricken patriarch gathers for what may be its last Passover in the family home—and it’s directed smoothly enough by Joseph Megel, who steered the play through its first production in Chicago last May. And Megel’s cast is perfectly accomplished, though its strengths tend toward the quietly affecting rather than the cathartic.
This, however, is a play that’s concerned with catharsis, and the tactics it employs to achieve it will have as many patrons rolling their eyes as wiping them. It wouldn’t be fair to go into detail about what doesn’t work, but let’s just say that the unflinching realism of the play’s initial two-thirds takes a sharp turn into Elijah-ex-machina territory shortly after the seder starts. It’s too jarring, too obvious, and inevitably too easy a way to sort out all the issues that have been raised. (And it goes on too long, besides.)
It’s worth noting that Maisel’s command of her craft is pretty formidable. Her scenes are neatly shaped, her dialogue is snappy and reasonably naturalistic, and her incorporation of Passover-ritual explanations (for both the non-Jewish characters and the goyim in the audience) manages to be educational without being didactic. Moreover, she’s referenced seder traditions in both text and structure in a way that might have seemed too clever-clever in less accomplished hands: The Had Gadya, with its singsong litany of things destroying and being destroyed in turn, seems apt for a family that’s been cannibalizing itself under the stress of profound change, and it will be profoundly resonant for many when, just before kicking off the ritual, that much-pressed matriarch acknowledges her husband’s inability to lead it with a frustrated cry of “Fuck order!” (The word “seder,” after all, means “order,” and it’s the overthrow of the known that’s causing all the grief in Maisel’s play.)
Another conceit, though, may be the play’s major flaw: Unless I’m mistaken, Maisel has loosely based the behaviors the family’s four daughters display for most of the evening on the four sons in the Haggada—”the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and the son who does not know how to ask,” as their father eventually makes clear. He makes it clear far too late in the game, however, and the neatness of the device won’t be a comfort to those who’ve been sitting for upward of an hour trying to figure out what’s motivating these odd women.
And in the case of Michelle, the daddy’s-girl main character, it’s not enough of an explanation anyway. It’s her volatility, her rage and frustration and grief about her father’s increasing irrationality and inability to know her, that fuels much of the play’s conflict—but this woman is supposed to be an elementary-school teacher, so you’d think she’d be more prepared for a bit of unpredictable behavior. For heaven’s sake, you keep thinking, I hope she’s not this quick on the trigger with her kids. CP