Twelfth Night. Directed by Ben McLemore and performed by The City Theatre, Austin, Texas. 31 May, 2014.
Twelfth Night is often viewed as the greatest of Shakespeare’s comedies; his early ones show so much optimism that they win less respect, and his later efforts become so dark that it is hard to find a footing for happiness in them. Twelfth Night, written in about 1601, represents the crest of the wave, the moment when Shakespeare’s joy in words hovered for a moment before beginning its downward fall, as he explored the limits of the comic form. The City Theatre’s production of the play, directed by Ben McLemore, is set during the Roaring Twenties, in what feels like an American version of the play’s vague setting in Illyria. This is a Gatsbyesque comic world; the men and women, elegantly costumed by Becky Squyres, drink heavily but never lose their balance—or their ability to pose—in the various permutations of erotic and social tension that animate the play.
Though occasionally rushed, the performances are coherent, matching Shakespeare’s rhetorical flourishes to the styles of the flapper and the gentleman that are familiar icons of our memory of that time. There are layers of pride and desire in many of the characters: Robert Stevens’ Malvolio is as determined to keep order in Olivia’s house as he is to gain her love, and Maria Latiolais’ clever and yearning Viola are bright points. In this slightly silly and overblown world, Bob Jones’ ingenuous and hopeful Andrew Aguecheek steals scenes repeatedly.
The set, as designed by Andy Berkovsky, looks like a boardwalk; the idea is, clearly, that a sea is to be imagined behind it. This is all executed with grace and intelligence—and, delightfully, an absence of self-indulgent pauses (and a trimmed text). Several characters are cross-cast, including Kelsi Tyler’s bright and funny Fabian. McLemore’s blocking and use of the small stage puts vitality and surprise before the audience consistently. One can see, in moments, the deeper longings of the play—in Viola and Antonio, particularly. And Owen Ziegler is a needed counterweight to the posing onstage; unlike the other ruffians, he really would be delighted to fight.
This is a bright version of the play, focusing on folly and desire. Darker elements are mostly toned down here, although Malvolio’s imprisonment, accomplished with only lighting effects, hinted at the more serious energies of the text. One of the most satisfying ways in which this performance developed the painful pleasures of the play was with music. The recordings of period jazz were perfectly in sync with the mixture of melancholy and hope that Shakespeare wrote. Even more of a treat was the live singing of Kristin Hall as Feste, who has a stunning ability to navigate the subtle songs of the play with textual and musical élan. Her voice is perfectly suited to the intimate performance space, and worth the price of admission by itself.
The City Theatre is one of Austin’s warmer theatrical venues, and this is deft, focused and charming entertainment.