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A CurtainUp Review
Twelfth Night

Most wonderful!.—Olivia
12th Night
From L to R: Sean McNall (Feste), Bradford Cover (Sir Toby Belch), Dominic Cuskern (Malvolio)
(Photo: Luke Redmond)
Interest in Shakespeare's masterpiece Twelfth Night seems to be on the rise, as I mentioned in my review a few weeks ago of another production of the play. In that review I said that the New York Neo-Classical Ensemble's take was decidedly not your parents' Twelfth Night; but as one might expect, the Pearl's version is, and despite its usual professionalism and competence I'm still not sure whether the quest for accuracy doesn't drain some of the vitality from the show in the process.

First the good news. As usual, the Pearl's trademark production values are top-notch, from a simple but strikingly effective set (designed by Harry Feiner) to quality sound and lighting (Amy Altadonna and Stephen Petrilli, respectively), all of which makes the transition from the shores of Illyria to Orsino's court to Olivia's home seamless and convincing. The costumes are similarly well done (by Liz Covey), though I'm not as sanguine about the overall vision of the place which they represent: the members of Orsino's court seem to be dressed in vaguely Indian or Arabian outfits, with Viola's servants rather straight-ahead Victorian British. If the intention is to draw some connection between colonialism and the relationships in the play, the idea isn't carried forward or developed at all. Still, most of the production is presented coherently and faithfully, and there's never any fear of Shakespeare's work getting lost in translation.

As usual, both director J.R. Sullivan and the cast are up to the challenge of faithful representation of the play. The action moves along at a good pace, and the staging is always interesting and occasionally excellent (the famous scenes of Malvolio's discovery of the letter and the "fight" between the disguised Viola and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are particularly well executed). Sullivan picks up on the subtlety of Shakespeare's text nicely, so that Feste's songs represent just the right mix of humor and melancholy, and the audience is made to feel rightly uncomfortable at Malvolio's ill-treatment towards the end of the play despite his own severe character flaws.

All members of the company give their usual competent performances, from David Townsend's pathetically stupid Aguecheek to TJ Edwards' Fabian (a surprisingly complex rendition of a fairly minor character). Sean McNall delivers a quality performance as Feste (even if his character seems to fade into the background as the play goes on). Orsino (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend) is perhaps a little too stereotypically melancholy, and Viola (Ali Ahn) a little too awestruck for her own good (Ahn delivers her lines well enough, but Viola has more depth than she's given here). Bradford Cover's Sir Toby Belch struck me as a little more foppish than what his over-the-top drunkenness calls for, but these aren't serious problems, and the exceptional performances of Dominic Cuskern as Malvolio and Rachel Botchan as Olivia more than make up for any deficiencies elsewhere (I have yet to see Botchan misstep in a role in which she's cast, and her nuanced representation of Olivia is no exception).

On the whole, then, this is a competent production. . .so why do I hesitate in pronouncing it an unqualified success? To go back to my line about the parents, part of my frustration may be in wanting more than the Pearl, at times, seems willing to deliver. At its best the company delivers an entertaining and professional performance of classic work, and such moments are a pleasure to watch. But at other times it seems so insistent on accuracy and proper reverence to the text and its author that the result is a little stiff, a little obvious— predictable rather than penetrating. When Malvolio delivers his final line "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you," the mood is deadly serious, as it should be. But a second after his exit everyone is smiling again, pleased at the prospect of dual marriages and happy reunions, Malvolio's absence, Aguecheek's dismissal from court and Antonio's ambiguous fate all seemingly forgotten. Not even Feste—who in some productions is directed to express his doubt about this result, despite the role he played in bringing it about—seems particularly perturbed. This isn't textually wrong, but it seems energetically off from the tension Shakespeare clearly intended to represent, and I sometimes found myself longing for a bit more of the vitality of the Neo-Classical Ensemble and less of the classroom perfection the Pearl inevitably provides. In general, this is a solid show. But I do wish that the company would occasionally be willing to take the risk of letting its reach exceed its grasp.

For the other Twelfth Night review mentioned agove go here
For links to other productions of Twelfth Night and other Shakespeare plays, see our Shakespeare Quotation Page

Twelfth Night
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: J.R. Sullivan
Cast: Ali Ahn (Viola), Rachel Botchan (Olivia), Robin Leslie Brown (Maria), Bradford Cover (Sir Toby Belch), Dominic Cuskern (Malvolio), TJ Edwards (Fabian, Ship Captain), Michael Gabriel Goodfriend (Orsino), Sean McNall (Feste), Joseph Midyett (Valentine, Sebastian), Kila Packett (Curio, Priest), Jay Stratton (Antonio), David L. Townsend (Sir Andrew Aguecheek)
Scenic Design: Harry Feiner
Costume Design: Liz Covey
Lighting Design: Stephen Petrilli
Sound Design and Original Music: Amy Altadonna
Running time: 2 hours and 55 minutes (includes  one fifteen minute intermission)
The Pearl Theatre Company, 80 St. Mark's Place, (212) 598-9802
From 1/20/09 to 2/22/09; opening 2/2/09
Tuesday @ 7 p.m., Wed., Sat., Sun. @ 2 p.m., Thurs. — Sat. @ 8 p.m.
Tickets: $45 for Tues. — Thurs. performances, $55 for Friday — Sunday performances
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson based on January 30th press performance
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