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A CurtainUp Review
Twelfth Night

Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage ---.Festes
Such as we are made of, such we be.---Viola

Kenn Sabberton as Malvolio and Louis Butelli, behind tree, as Feste
Kenn Sabberton as Malvolio and Louis Butelli, behind tree, as Feste
(Photo: Richard Termine )
Taking what is naturally strained and incredulous in Shakespeare to heart, the Aquila Theatre Company has for its production of Twelfth Night placed an emphasis on mime, dance and song. This includes some original and stimulating neo-Elizabethan underscoring by composer Anthony Cochrane, who also happens to be taking the part of Sir Toby Belch with somewhat less stimulating results.

As exponents of a technique called "Theatrical Utilitarianism,".” in which the actors presumably relinquish inhibition and self-consciousness, as well as removing that which is superfluous from their performances, the company appears to be exercising that mission. Whether that is sufficient to create truth or, to a less demanding degree, amusement on stage is another story.

Since the company, originating in London, has been around since 1991, this production is certainly not serving as a test case. It is, however, their first Shakespeare to be dressed in Elizabethan garb, but probably not the first to exhibit the company’s flair for indicating what is already clear in the text. Costumier Megan Bowers gets an unqualified nod for her handsome mostly black and gold palate. The play is also cleverly presented in a .setting that invites an intriguing sense of perspective inspired by artist Girolama de Cotignola’s Verduta di Citti (1520), the creation of graphic artist Brown Cathell, Peter Meineck, the company founder and artistic director and Robert Richmond, who also co-directed the production.

As might be expected, Feste plays as prominent a role as the romantic leads. Played with exuberance by Louis Butelli, this "allowed fool" is apparently feeling a little suicidal after his failed attempt to raise his mistress Olivia’s dead brother from his coffin. But his despondency is short lived as he unselfishly takes the rope he has already placed around his neck to save the shipwrecked Viola from drowning. If nothing else, a dark side to his nature prompts Feste, as much as does his more joyful predilection for exposing his "excellent breast" for singing some of Cochrane’s lovely ballads.

Although considered one of Shakespeare’s weaker plays, Twelfth Night contains enough tomfoolery and romance to remain a popular item in the Bardian canon. Its popularity is surely a consideration when a roaming company chooses it as a light summer offering for NYC (this production has already played 65 venues across the US).

At any rate, it is the tomfoolery that appears to take precedence over the romance in Peter Meineck and Robert Richmond’s clownish and also somewhat tedious staging. In part, the tediousness may be linked to the lack of interest we have in the principal players, save one. The role of Viola is sweetly and spiritedly played by Lindsay Rae Taylor, whose Alice in Wonderland hair is as well hidden in the guise of Cesario as is her passion for Orsino, Duke of Illyria (Andrew Schwartz, who also doubles as Antonio, a Sea Captain). It is a pity that Orsino’s brief yearnings for the Lady Olivia vanish like vapor in the air as soon as they are spoken. While there is very little that is substantive, let alone sentimental, in Schwartz’s blandly delivered declarations, there are constant hints around him that antics are waiting in the wings. Lisa Carter gives an amusingly beguiling edge to Olivia.

Playing the production for laughs would not be. a bad idea if the laughs paid off more. Take the attempt to focus on the comical confluence of Olivia’s boozing uncle Sir Toby Belch (Anthony Cochrane) and his dim-witted side-kick and Olivia’s suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Lincoln Hudson). Save for a real belch from Cochrane and a casual toss of Sir Andrew’s asymmetrically shredded blonde fright wig by Hudson, there isn’t much comical continuity going on between these two befuddled buddies. Sadly their lack of riotous brio doesn’t offer a sharp enough contrast to the much stiffer countenance of Kenn Sabberton, as the maligned "affectionate ass" Malvolio. Though neither Cochrane and Hudson are charged with enough shtick to tickle our funny bone, they do resort to plenty of flailing and fluttering about in the famous drinking scene, that also includes Maria, Olivia’s clever Lady-in-Waiting (a lively turn by Natasha Piletich), and Feste).

It is a shame that Sabberton, who otherwise gets our attention trying to please Olivia by donning a costume that makes him look like a bumble bee in heat (in the famous yellow stocking scene), doesn’t make more of his opportunities to win our pity. Somewhat lost amid the helter-skelter is the poignancy of Malvolio’s plight, as devised by Maria, and actually the core of the play. How nice that Stephen Stout speaks his lines earnestly, cuts a comely figure and wields a sword with panache as Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother.

Keeping up with Shakespeare’s mixture of parody and poignancy is not an easy task for any director or in this case, directors, seasoned or otherwise. The collaborators have, at least, seen to it that the actors keep in step (there is quite a bit of un-credited choreography, if that’s the word) with the inanity, if not in harmony with the romantics of the plot.

By William Shakespeare, adapted by Robert Richmond
Created and Directed by Peter Meineck and Robert Richmond
Cast: Louis Butelli, Lindsay Rae Taylor, Andrew Schwartz, Anthony Cochrane, Natasha Piletich, Lisa Carter, Lincoln Hudson, Kenn Sabberton, Stephen Stout.
Composer/Musical Director: Anthony Cochrane
Production Design: Meineck and Richmond
Lighting Design: Peter Meineck
Costumier: Megan Bowers
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes including one intermission
The Aquila Theatre Company at The Baruch Performing Arts Center, 25th Street between Lexington & Third Avenues, 212/ 279 – 4200
From 6/17/05 to 8/21/05; opening 6/25/05
Thursday – Saturday at 8:00 PM with matinees Saturday & Sunday at 3:00 PM.
Tickets: $25 to $45
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on 6/30/05 performance
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