Get local news delivered straight to your phone

Do you suppose the Washington Post is actively trying to stifle theater hereabouts, or are its editors just stumbling along blindly? First the paper brings in an arts editor from Miami who needs to learn about local stages from the ground up. Then it peppers a preview piece about Studio Theatre’s expansion with mean-spirited comments about founder Joy Zinoman, and scares the hell out of the Helen Hayes Awards folks by waffling about whether this year’s nominations are newsworthy enough to merit coverage (it finally decided in the affirmative). And now, with the New York Times’ new, locally printed D.C. edition running occasional theater stories with a regional focus, it reacts not by focusing on its own turf, but by sending its chief theater critic to Manhattan to survey an evidently anemic crop of new Broadway musicals. Never mind that there’s been absolutely no buzz on the shows she’s been panning; they’re in N.Y.C., and that apparently makes them worth acres of local newsprint.

Meanwhile, one of this city’s busier theater weeks gets left to stringers, one of whom has been responding lately to nearly everything he sees by finding it overcomplicated and confusing, which is basically what he said about Delia Taylor’s intriguingly reconsidered Twelfth Night at Washington Shakespeare Company.

Don’t believe it. Taylor’s production is a gender-bending gem with more tricks up its sleeve than most, and it features a casting fillip that packs previously nondescript corners of the play with the sort of surprises that Disney/ABC-TV would feel obligated to spend six months preparing an audience for.

Twelfth Night, remember, is the Bard’s comedy about the love affairs of identical twins Viola and Sebastian, each of whom thinks the other has drowned in a shipwreck. Viola dresses as a boy to get a job in Duke Orsino’s household, promptly falls head over heels for her employer, and is appalled when he sends her as a proxy to woo standoffish Olivia. When Olivia develops a crush on this downy-cheeked, boyishly attired emissary, matters become tangled. And when Viola’s look-alike brother Sebastian shows up trailing a valet named Antonio who long ago antagonized the Duke, the tangle tangles further.

One of the more annoying things about most Twelfth Nights, including Trevor Nunn’s recent film version, is that no observer could possibly confuse their Violas and Sebastians. Unlike, say, Comedy of Errors, where male actors of similar stature and voice can be persuasively cast as twins, gender is here a complicating factor. In Shakespeare’s day, when the convention was for adolescent boys to play female parts, an audience could reasonably go along with the conceit, but today, if Viola is butch enough or Sebastian effeminate enough to give rise to serious confusion, there start to be other questions about the characters.

Taylor has taken those other questions and run with them. Without altering the genders of the leading roles, she has cast women as both twins—much as Elizabethan productions would have cast boys—and effectively revived all the sexual double-entendres Shakespeare must have intended but that have slipped away with modern casting practices. Gratifyingly, the result doesn’t just add jokes to a play that has plenty already. Rather, it makes whole sections of the evening work in entirely new ways.

We can't make City Paper without you

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Take, for instance, all that early chitchat between tenderhearted Antonio, (“If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant”) and grieving Sebastian (“I am so near the manners of my mother…”) that’s usually played for its master/servant nuances. Now it acquires a sexual charge. In the play’s world, two men are saying the lines, which is why most directors de-eroticize them by depicting Antonio as toadying, neutered, or seventysomething. But with a woman playing Sebastian, the passage can’t help looking heterosexual, and sounding romantic. So Taylor has the performers play it amorously. Tomboyish Michelle Shupe (Sebastian) and Jon Sherman (Antonio) come bounding on like horny schoolkids, are soon wrestling, and by the time hammerlocks have turned to hugs it’s clear they’re having a fling, and that Antonio will follow Sebastian anywhere. This, as it turns out, is precisely what the ensuing dialogue seems to indicate, and darned if every conversation between them doesn’t start shimmering with fresh subtext.

So do scenes in which the director allows Sebastian to chime in on Viola’s lines about appearances not always being what they seem. The staging device is simple enough: While wooing Hope Lambert’s sweetly perplexed Olivia in her boss’s name, Viola (Jennifer Gerdts) keeps sneaking peeks at the mirror to admire herself in male attire, and Taylor leaves the glass out of the mirror so she can put Shupe’s Sebastian on the other side of it. Jests about detecting real beauty under makeup naturally acquire a bit of additional spin. But the real joke is deeper still: two actresses in drag, mirroring each other perfectly as they talk about feminine duplicity.

Frankly, if the virtues of single-gender casting of the twins ended there, it would be a pretty neat trick. But the effect of specifically feminine casting on the play’s conclusion, when the mixup between Sebastian and Viola finally gets straightened out, is far more telling. For what Taylor is after is a gender-conscious reconsideration of all the play’s romantic pairings—one that’s not just clever for its own sake, but perfectly attuned to a society for which the sexuality of soldiers and sitcom stars has become a front-page issue. (If you’re unfamiliar with the play and would rather not know its twists in advance, you’ll want to skip the next paragraph.)

Ordinarily, when Sebastian enters the picture and Viola is revealed to be a girl, the Viola/Olivia couple, which has looked like a lesbian pairing, gets replaced by two straight couples (Viola/Orsino and Olivia/Sebastian). To Elizabethans—and no doubt to Ralph Reed—this qualifies as an all’s-well-that-ends-well conclusion, and at least theoretically it remains intact in WSC’s staging. But with Sebastian played by a woman, the Olivia/ Sebastian couple looks just as lesbian as the Olivia/Viola couple did, and what has been broken up—stay with me here—is a gay Antonio/Sebastian couple, which looked straight. Bring Oprah onstage to reassure everyone that the world won’t crumble, and these folks could all go prime-time tomorrow.

Taylor hasn’t neglected the evening’s other characters while reconsidering its central romances. The role of the usually male clown, Feste, is played—and occasionally sung—by Kila D. Burton, who brings warmth and femininity to the task of counseling Olivia, and a witty feminism to spoofing that trio of chauvinist idiots: Sir Toby Belch (blustering Jim Zidar), Andrew Aguecheek (goofily hilarious Andy Rapoport), and poor, maligned Malvolio (Gary Telles cross-gartered to a degree that would give pause even to Frank N. Furter).

All these roles are played every bit as brightly as the leads, which is a good thing, since the actors would otherwise be eclipsed by Edu. Bernardino’s deliriously flamboyant costuming. Not for nothing has this inventive designer’s striking way with fabric, line, and the occasional found object become one of the more reliable joys of attending shows at the Clark Street Playhouse. David Gant’s sprawling yet intimate setting, Ron Oshima’s insinuatingly jazzy incidental music, and Ayun Fedorcha’s witty lighting (which at one point allows Malvolio to exact the revenge that most productions deny him) are also helpful in making this a Twelfth Night that wouldn’t be overstaying its welcome if it hung around ’til dawn.

Less adventurous but still pretty arresting is Jim Petosa’s visually gorgeous, noisier than hell, and mostly well-acted take on Romeo and Juliet at Olney Theatre. The evening begins with much clanging of pipes, and relies more than is probably wise on pitched battles between knife-wielding youths to keep audiences attentive, but the performers also manage to locate the music in the poetry and to give familiar passages unfamiliar nuances.

Petosa’s approach to the Bard’s star-cross’d lovers often seems a cross between the Leonardo DiCaprio/Claire Danes movie version and a conventional stage mounting. It’s kinetic, ferocious, and vaguely kaleidoscopic as it sends its characters careening up and down designer Dan Conway’s textured copper staircases. But it also tries to make vaudeville turns of comic shtick involving Juliet’s nurse (Mary Beth Wise) and Romeo’s buddies that might better be skimmed past in an evening that approaches three hours.

Mark Heimann, who has been mostly relegated to sideline tasks and spear-carrying at Shakespeare Theatre, and Carolyn Pasquantonio, who was a wonderful Helen Keller a couple of seasons ago in Olney’s Miracle Worker, are persuasively youthful and lovestruck as the leads. And they’re capably backed by such accomplished Shakespeare Theatre, Arena Stage, Woolly Mammoth, and Washington Stage Guild stalwarts as Ed Gero, Richard Bauer, Chris Lane, and Helen Hedman. Gero’s gentle, concerned Lord Capulet is particularly fine, slow to burn, and harrowing once he erupts. Bauer’s Friar Lawrence, who can be seen scribbling in his study in the background of most scenes, even when he has no lines, is a case study in well-meaning trepidation. The fringes of the cast are weaker, but not to the point that they’re seriously distracting.

Daniel MacLean Wagner’s colorful shadows, Ron Orsano’s Philip Glass-inflected score, and the Elizabethan-by-way-of-Venice-Beach costumes sculpted out of denim, silk, and lots of metal studs by Rosemary Pardee and Catherine Adair are all assets. It’s the sort of production from which you carry away individual moments rather than a sweeping story, but it’s undeniably vivid, and marks a big step up from the summer-stock level of the company’s last couple of productions.

If you wanted to sum up Jean Cocteau’s 1938 comedy, Les Parents Terribles, in a phrase, you might settle on something like, “Boy meets girl loses mom.” That’s the plot in a nutshell, but nutshells can’t do full justice to the Oedipal swamps through which Cocteau brightly slogs with a quintet of boulevard-comedy characters who look increasing-ly bedraggled.

In Indiscretions, Jeremy Sams’ translation of this once-controversial comedy, before young Michael (John Benoit) finishes shredding the old familial ties that blind, dads and aunts and girlfriends get mixed and matched, plots get hatched, destinies altered, and confidences betrayed. Not only that, but class struggle is first considered and then dismissed as a social force. All so that a bourgeois clan of layabouts who fancy themselves “gypsies” can hack at umbilical cords and try to replace childhood messes with adult ones.

Aunt Leo (Jewell Robinson) is the tidiest of this untidy bunch, picking up after her sister Yvonne (Lynn Steinmetz) and Yvonne’s husband George (Morgan Duncan), for whom she’s carried a torch for decades. Their son Michael’s recent absences from the household have caused a crisis, and when he reveals the reason—that he’s fallen in love with a lovely blonde named Madeleine (Rhea Seehorn)—all hell rather decorously breaks loose. George, it turns out, has also been seeing someone named Madeleine, which doesn’t appear to bother Yvonne nearly as much as her son’s seeking comfort in someone else’s bosomy embrace. Leo watches and waits, certain that her time will come.

Cocteau wrote this play at about the time that Noel Coward was coming into his own on the north side of the English Channel, and his writing has much the same offhand, brittle flair that audiences associate with Coward, Terence Rattigan, and other writers of boulevard comedies. But the Freudian undercurrents of Cocteau’s work are decidedly darker. A recent New York production of this work inspired reviews that made it sound as if it had been penned by a contemporary surrealist like Nicky Silver or Doug Wright. Which would seem to suggest it’s slightly outside the oeuvre of Washington Stage Guild, but perhaps right up the alley of co-directors Lee Mikeska Gardner and David Jackson, who’ve dealt with similar material at Consenting Adults and Woolly Mammoth, and who’ve been brought on board for this occasion.

Oddly, though, while they approach this material with the same edge that has served them well elsewhere, the effect isn’t all one might have hoped. Much of the problem appears to be that WSG’s acting company, having mastered many performance styles over the years, is intent on displaying all of them in this particular show. The acting consequently ranges all over the map, with Benoit—a lanky, angular performer with a voice that sounds like sandpaper—so wrong physically and vocally for his role as a naif and mama’s boy that it’s a wonder his character even registers.

Even so, the evening qualifies as reasonably amusing, and has been prettily produced, with a set by Marcus Darnley that cleans up nicely in Act 2 while looking as if it’s been hit by a household hurricane in Acts 1 and 3. Costumes, lighting, music, and the like are handled with WSG’s customary elegance. It’s all rather pleasant, which isn’t quite what’s called for but is, I suppose, a backhanded tribute to Cocteau’s genius for making outrageousness acceptable.CP