The latest version of Twelfth Night at the Old Globe Theatre, the 10th since the beginning of the Shakespeare Festival tradition in 1949, is easy to enjoy, made accessible by Rebecca Taichman’s bright staging and an amiable cast of mostly appealing actors.
The imaginary world of Illyria, as visualized by set designer Riccardo Hernandez, is a vague spread of sterile abstraction – lit in a style interesting but incidental by Christopher Akerlind – which inspires imposing projections and skittering furniture moving. There is an under-utilized water feature channeled across the rear of the stage but mostly there is room to fill.
Though the familiar story marches right along, Taichman seems to have favored some scenes over others. The introduction of the Duke Orsino, a leonine mixture here of Othello and Yul Brenner’s Siamese king, is a hoot, with a wind-up Victrola playing music (“the food of love”) and a squad of solemn syncopates who even relax by the numbers. As Orsino, who really is a nice guy, Terence Archie has to overcome some serious strut before he levels out and locks in.
But the shipwreck that dumps gentle Viola in this unknown land really isn’t much. She’s wet, true, but she’s managed to salvage a large suitcase and the surviving sailor is almost a concierge from the palace. As for the storm? What storm? The lighting designer didn’t get the memo.
Scenes that really catch fire tend to involve that randy old rogue Sir Toby Belch and the hopeless fool he’s exploiting, Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Tom McGowan plays Toby like a dehorned Viking, wrecking order and sewing dissipation with relentless abandon. As Aguecheek, Patrick Kerr simpers, minces and poses in his silver shoes, wracked by paroxysms of hopeless inadequacy, which climax in an extended routine with a drooping sword belt.
The lone wolf (and true soul) of any Twelfth Night is Feste, dearest of all Shakespeare’s clowns. Manoel Felciano uses a silk top hat and a yearning fiddle to augment his deft reading of the nonsense, which everybody can’t help, but pause to hear. Plus, he finds whole new dimensions of accent fun while tormenting poor Malvolio in his dungeon cell.
Ah, yes, Malvolio. He really isn’t a tragic, misunderstood figure, just an ass. Or at least that’s how Shakespeare’s audience would have read him, much to their merriment. When played by an actor as skilled and subtle as Robert Joy, though, a more modern Malvolio surfaces, one cruelly fooled into foolish behavior, not driven by self-importance as much as aspiration. Paying close attention to the lines (when Maria says “…the devil of a Puritan he is…” she means he’s not one) suggests Malvolio gets what he deserves. That last speech – “I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you.” – is more chilling even than Iago’s “…from this time forth I never will speak word.”
The Malvolio scenes seem to exist apart from the flow of the show, although Taichman and the guys have great fun with them, hiding in the rose garden while their victim reads the fatal forged letter. Add to the clowns the terrific Maria of Amy Aquino, whose voice could cut through any confusion, and you find the beating heart of this production.
The scenes between the disguised Viola and the lofty Olivia, who falls as hard for this “page boy” as Viola has for Orsino, when that duke sends her to woo the uninterested Olivia, should be the play’s core. Somehow they’re not.
Sara Topham plays Olivia like a 1950s movie queen, all primped and sealed in her blond splendor just waiting to be launched by the right guy. But Rutina Wesley
ain’t him, even in the merry confusion department. Wesley seems a competent actress sadly miscast but game to the end. Her scenes with Orsino are tender and sweet but she’s uneasy with Olivia and totally Wanting. Outa. There. with the clowns. Thus the annoying rattle somewhere in the chassis of this production.
Taichman is not without resources. When it’s time to shut down the mourning for a dead brother, she brings on the rose petals _ by the wheelbarrow load. There’s a lot of bosom-grabbing and not just to cope with all the sexual ambiguity: Sir Toby briefly gropes five girls at once.
But many stagings of Twelfth Night sort out the final curtain better than this. The marriages, what to do with Malvolio, who will be punished for what and especially, the question of Antonio, the stalwart who gets into big trouble defending Viola’s twin brother Antonio. Shakespeare vaguely suggests a pardon but there are ways actually to show it. Here, poor old Antonio gets hauled off as a prisoner of war because he wouldn’t desert a pal.
There is an ending that generates some charged enchantment. And a song from Felciano’s Feste, set as nicely as the rest by Todd Almond, is a sigh of an ending.
David Israel Reynoso’s costumes are the usual mittel-european romantic duds with yards of fabric in the skirts and a nice cut to the tight jackets. Too bad about all those swords, so necessary to the story. (Oddly, these seem to be of Japanese design. Oh, those Illyrians.)
Continues in the Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre at 8 p.m. June 30 and July 1-3, 5-12, 14-18, 20-24 and 26, 2015.