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A CurtainUp Review
Twelfth Night

Was not this love indeed?— Viola
Twelfth Night has always sat a bit uneasily in the canon of Shakespeare’s comedies. It’s neither a comedy of linguistic exchange like Love’s Labor Lost nor a lighthearted romp (albeit with some serious undertones) like A Midsummer Night’s Dream; with its emphasis on the anguish and triumph of love, family relationships, and class distinctions (to say nothing of its ambivalent treatment of a number of its characters, particularly Malvolio), it often strays outside the parameters of comedy altogether. But it’s exactly this rich uncertainty that makes it so popular with audiences and directors alike, and the Sonnet Repertory Theatre seems anxious to stake out fresh ground in its take on the classic. I just wish the head didn’t get so lost in the process of producing an obviously heartfelt effort.

Director Michael Lluberes says in his program notes that "Shakespeare is exploring love in this play," and the production is bound and determined to make that argument stick. A rolling bed (part of an excellent set by Seth Easter) dominates the staging, holding at one time or another almost every character in the play. The one exception, Feste (Ian Lowe), gets his own prop with which to be intimate: he’s never far away from the piano (on which all manner of alcoholic beverages are set throughout the play), and his music ties together the classic tale of misunderstanding, loss and reunion, and—again—love. Besides the usual suspects of Viola (Jolly Abraham) and Orsino (Lucas Hall) and Olivia (Yaya DaCosta) and the disguised Viola/twin brother Sebastian (Nick Choksi), Sir Toby Belch (Paul Whitty) and Maria (Jennifer Lyon) and Antonio (Phillip Christian) and Sebastian make their own appearances between the sheets. Malvolio (Ted Schneider), of course, is involved in an intimate affair with himself during his bedside appearances. Lluberes is nothing if not focused on his vision, and there isn’t a lot of subtext left by the time he’s finished with it.

The problem with this approach is that it tends to leave things out, particularly where Shakespeare is concerned. Sir Toby Belch is a drunkard, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Henry Vick) a fool, Malvolio an arrogant and hypocritical prude whose contempt for the other characters is palpable. These are all clear and obvious characterizations, but both the characters and the play they inhabit demand more subtlety than that, and that’s unfortunately where the SRT production tends to fall short. The play is, after all, about more than alcohol and lovemaking, yet even the most thoughtful and powerful speeches in the play—Viola’s brilliant and moving representation of a woman’s anguished yet silent passion for her unaware love, ending in "She sat like Patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief" as a prime example—fall clearly and unexplainably flat. Part of this may have been the result of a simple lack of projection; this was the first time I can ever remember wishing the actors were miked, as line after line was minimally audible, even from the fifth or sixth rows, and most of the emotional scenes of the play suffered as a result. But whatever the reason, this Twelfth Night needed to do more to engage its audience, and never really pulled it off throughout the production.

A really fine actor might be able to bring out subtleties the director missed; like the production itself, though, the talent here is generally decent but not extraordinary. Christian represents the impact of passion well in his Antonio, while Whitty and Vick turn in solid performances as Belch and Aguecheek. Lyon, engaging and believable as Maria, probably delivers the best performance of the cast. But there’s a problem when most of your best performers are cast in supplemental roles, particularly in Twelfth Night, which relies so heavily on the "big five" characters. In this group, Schneider’s Malvolio is the strongest, effectively shading his trademark pride and arrogance with some sympathetic bewilderment.

Hall is solid as Orsino. DaCosta looks the part of Olivia, but doesn’t seem to be able to give Shakespeare’s language bite or heft, losing a number of lines to inaudibility. Abraham, whom I’ve seen do excellent work at the Pearl in the past, is a little erratic as Viola, at times representing her confused emotions compellingly (as in her reunion with her brother) and at others seemingly anxious to rush through the expressions of her repressed passion for Orsino. Most disappointing, in arguably the most important role of the play, is Lowe’s Feste. Lowe is largely forgettable as one of Shakespeare’s most complex characters, conveying neither the fool’s wit nor his thoughtfulness, and his off-tune, alt rock singing (which sounded a bit like what would happen if an actor from Rent wandered onto a sixteenth century stage) more distracts from than enhances the scenes in which he participates.

This is a shame, because it’s obvious that the company is committed to what it’s doing. But Shakespeare appeals to both head and heart in Twelfth Night, and in forgetting about the first to hammer home the importance of the second, director Lluberes misses the boat a bit here. There’s nothing terribly wrong with the SRT’s Twelfth Night. On other circumstances, with a less performed play, it might come off better. But it’s competing with a number of recent versions of the same work, and in that group it just doesn’t stand out particularly well.

Twelfth Night
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Michael Lluberes
Cast: Lucas Hall (Orsino), Brynne Morrice (Valentine), Jolly Abraham (Viola), Phillip Christian (Sea Captain / Antonio), Paul Whitty (Sir Toby Belch), Henry Vick (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Jennifer Lyon (Maria), Ian Lowe (Feste), Yaya DaCosta (Olivia), Ted Schneider (Malvolio), Nick Choksi (Sebastian)
Composer: Ben Toth
Set Design: Seth Easter
Costume Design: Ryan Park
Lighting Design: Brad Peterson
Sound Design: Janie Bullard
Running time: Two hours, forty minutes including a fifteen minute intermission
Sonnet Repertory Theatre, The Theatre @ St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th Street, (212) 352-3101
Website: http://www.sonnetrepertorytheatre.org
From 7/23/10 to 8/1/10; opening 7/24/10
Wed. – Fri. @ 8:00 p.m., Sat. @ 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. – Mon. @ 7 p.m.
Tickets: $18
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson based on July 23rd preview performance
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