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Panning Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing last May, the New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane fired off a couple of cheap shots at what cinéastes and other theaterphobes have long considered the artificiality of stage conventions. Characterizing the film as a “blaring, in-your-face rush of excess,” he complained that the theatricality of the bit-players (“lads and lasses…throwing back their heads and laughing at absolutely nothing”) was exceeded only by that of the stars (“Branagh and [Emma] Thompson…bugging their eyes and throwing off gestures more suitable to the stage”).
At the time, I wondered what stage he was talking about. Naturalism—a little heightened, perhaps, but rarely to the extent Lane describes—has been the professional theater’s style-of-choice for decades. That’s particularly true of classical companies, which don’t want to alienate the “cultchah”-wary and consequently go to special pains to keep stage behavior natural and dialogue conversational. Sure, the Comédie Francaise is another matter, but who, in this country, ever sees them? Having rather liked Branagh’s Much Ado, I comforted myself by assuming that Lane must be an infrequent theatergoer, and that he was knocking the stuffing out of a straw man he’d constructed from equal parts ignorance and disdain.
It is therefore with some pain that I note how well his comments would apply to Arena Stage’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will, a production in which all of theater’s most mannered impulses seem to have been given free rein. Director Douglas C. Wager interprets the second half of the title as license to embellish Shakespeare’s comic tale of unrequited love and long-lost identical twins with a wink and a nod (or two, or six), a physical production that’s elaborate for no reason save spectacle, and a performance style (especially among the lesser clowns) that converts even legitimate stage business into mere busy-ness.
The company’s designers have provided one of Arena’s quantum productions, sparing no expense where gimmicks and brocades are concerned. The costumes and wigs are Dickensian by way of the Arabian nights. The set has Greek columns, oversize statuary fragments, a pop-up wishing well (which ostentatiously converts to a sundial for a single visual joke), a marble staircase leading nowhere in particular, a glassy beach, and no sense of place whatever. Because Arena’s Illyria is Middle Eastern, there are sabers, turbans, a harp, and a magic lamp. But Western influences are also in evidence, in 19th-century ball gowns and the waistcoated elegance of servants and hangers-on. It’s the theatrical equivalent of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink.
Though the play centers on a double romance, love often seems the least of the director’s concerns as he allows his supporting cast to turn the play’s low comedians into eye-popping, lip-pursing freaks from some kiddie-theater Wonderland. Patrons may want to keep reminding themselves that the main plot concerns a shipwrecked waif named Viola who disguises herself as a boy so that she can be near her beloved Duke Orsino, only to be assigned the task of wooing the Duke’s beloved Olivia on his behalf. Of course Viola succeeds, but not for Orsino, whose intended ends up falling for the disguised messenger amid growing complications. The arrival of Viola’s twin brother Sebastian adds to the confusion.
But due at least in part to the production design, it’s the machinations of the hangers-on that tend to hold center stage. Feste (Jeffery V. Thompson), the jester who keeps offering the lovers unsolicited advice, pops from a magic lamp in full genie regalia and does magic tricks. Orientalism abounds among the Duke’s servants, while Olivia’s house is Lewis Carroll territory. The four romantic leads, who are playing naturally and with a certain amount of grace, can’t hope to compete with these fringe figures for the audience’s attention. Only Kathryn Meisle’s forthright Olivia—who is as winsome as she is willful—makes a substantial impression.
Most of the supporting characters gesture like idiots and guffaw at one another—over nothing and at great length, but hey, they’re the comedians! David Marks snuffles, snorts, and wheezes so much as Sir Toby Belch that he seems to be doing a conscious imitation of former Arena stalwart Stanley Anderson, whose congested breathing had begun to overwhelm the parts he played in his last few seasons with the company. Let someone say “dulcets,” and Marks starts whirling and chortling to beat the band; never mind that the audience isn’t being let in on the joke. The usually reliable Ralph Cosham has a few nice moments as an imbecilic Sir Andrew Aguecheek—mostly when he gives the character a glimmer of recognition as to what a fool he’s making of himself—but he’s pushing too hard most of the time. As the prudish servant Malvolio, Henry Strozier has the advantage of being maligned by these buffoons, which naturally gains him audience sympathy. But even he gives into the general overdoing, which reduces the effect of the character’s final, withering rebuke to the folks who’ve wronged him.
Amid so much folderol and fussiness, the principals, the plot, and the point all get lost. Not to mention the comedy.
In the Shakespeare Theater’s Richard II, Richard Thomas plays the titular king as an imperially childish fop, so convinced of his divine right to rule that he doesn’t grasp that his reign is threatened until it’s way too late for him to save it. Nothing wrong with that as far as it goes, though it means the character isn’t going to be very interesting until nearly intermission, when his nobles rise up against him.
Thomas has two superb scenes—the moment in which he first concedes his power to the nobles, and the “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me” speech at the very end of the evening. He plays the former through clenched teeth with such ferocity and fiercely husbanded fury that it seems briefly possible he might still carry the day. The latter he turns into a sorrowful acknowledgement of maturity come too late. For much of the rest of the evening, he alternates between posing as a spoiled child and as a hysterical hairdresser, neither of which quite captures the headstrong monarch that his uncle describes as a “young hot colt.”
The supporting cast is best where it needs to be, in its upper reaches. Edward Gero’s troubled Bolingbroke is a worthy antagonist to Richard, and Ted van Griethuysen’s crafty John of Gaunt makes a big impression during the brief time allotted him onstage. At lower levels, there’s a dullness that leaves the impression that everyone’s standing around, posing for a tapestry. Fortunately, the court looks flashy—Richard’s gold lamé cloaks and beaded white doublets are particularly grand—in costumes that must have wiped out the entire production budget, since the set is mostly scaffolding. Actually, what’s intended is a visual representation of the dismantling of the realm, to which purpose a huge portrait of Richard starts sprouting holes after his reign is challenged. The effect, however, is of a castle either under construction or perhaps being cleaned.