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The flat lightsilver-blue, a little chillyis the first hint of the melancholy that pervades the Shakespeare Theatre’s intriguing new Twelfth Night; a meditative little tune, played by the fool Feste on one of the battered pianos that litter the stage like so many shipwrecks, is the next. Daniel Fish’s dark and dreamy staging of this most unsettled Shakespeare comedy takes its cues from the words and the sentiments in the play’s first linesthat intense, restlessly dissatisfied speech that begins, “If music be the food of love, play on”and the strains that feed the misbegotten passions in this production are keyed in a distinctly cautionary minor.
And why not? Shakespeare puts a sober twist on the standard comic payoffs in Twelfth Night. The lovesick Duke Orsino and the bereaved Olivia, whom he adores; the castaway Viola, disguised as a boy and smitten with Orsino; her twin Sebastian, presumed dead; the drunkard Sir Tobythey’ve all paired off at the end, but it seems an uneasy resolution at best, with only Viola in possession of what she’d hoped for. Meanwhile, the revenge-threat of the social-climber servant Malvolio, tricked into humiliating himself in front of his mistress, hangs like harsh smoke in the air.
Deliberately languid pacing and gently wondrous stage compositions underscore the moody air of the proceedings at the Lansburgh: A golden godling of a footman carries Melissa Bowen’s regal Olivia onstage when Viola, disguised as the boy Cesario, comes to court her on Orsino’s behalf. Wrapped in voluminous gossamer blacks, the mourning countess reclines on a gilt sofa so sumptuous as to evoke Cleopatra’s barge, while her ladies, similarly veiled, drift like thunderheads through the scene. Smitten by Cesario’s charms (including, in this production, his musical dexterity), she sheds her veils like a butterfly’s cocoon. Scattered snow-showers punctuate transitions, and no one seems to wonder why they fall indoors. Another piano hangs beside the moon in the dark sky, and the ground is a wave-form frozen at its crest. Two combatants duel briefly with piano legs that look like giant drumsticks, and a polar bear lopes through a holiday revel unremarked (turns out he’s one of Olivia’s servants dressed for a party).
The casting nudges the production’s mood toward the somber, as well. Tari Signor is a taut Viola with a voice that seems always on the edge of breaking. Ty Burrell’s Antonio, of an age with Sebastian, is plainly not just devoted but enamored, which lends the relationship a forlorn and desperate air. Floyd King is a magnificently stuffy Malvoliohow has he managed to make the character’s dignity at once so laughably hollow and so moving?and his torment in the dark house, staged by Fish with the theater in utter blackness, brings home the realization that Ted van Griethuysen’s dissipated Toby and his cohorts have taken their jest too far.
It’s perhaps too studied, too cool and detached an approach for what is, after all, a comedy. But it’s thoughtful and adventurous, and it captures neatly the ambivalence that unmistakably marks the script. And certainly, it’s a wonder to look at.
Ari Roth’s Goodnight Irene is something of a wonder, too, a sprawling, ambitious effort that encompasses events as diverse as the Holocaust, the Crown Heights violence of early-’90s New York, and civil unrest in ’60s Chicago. It’s an intimate story about a brother and sister and the guilt they share over the death of a disturbed aunt who walked into Lake Michigan as their neighborhood exploded in racial conflict, but it’s also a meditation on the power of mythswhy we build them and whether the truth of their specifics is as crucial as the larger truths they come to represent.
Roth takes his time setting up his situations and relationships, and so the payoff in Act 2, when it at last arrives, is a trifle anticlimactic. And it may be that the overlapping plots, with their concerns about historical accuracy, the failure of communication in relationships, and the various realities that can be seen in any one event, are more dense than an audience can deal with comfortably.
But Glenn Kessler is superb as Ethan, a magazine editor who chases facts until he can’t see the truth of situations anymore, and so is Makela Spielman, as the emotionally fragile sister who both sustains and is sabotaged by him.
Elise Bryant brings both spark and cool intelligence to a character modeled on Anna Deavere Smith, and Howard W. Overshown is a convincing bundle of frustration as Ethan’s friend and eventual antagonist, Keith. Lee Mikeska Gardner’s direction is sure and even, and Lou Stancari’s set suggests both urban ghetto and wartime camp.
Roth seems to be interested in looking at the impact of the personal on the politicaland vice versaand asking how clearly we are able to recognize when one motivates the other. It’s a question worth raising, and he’s done it here in a way that manages to be powerfully intimate and yet resonant at once.CP