Monday, March 30, 2015

Margin Notes: Twelfth Night & What You Will

Susannah Millonzi, Andrus Nichols, Eric Tucker,
Edmund Lewis, and Tom O'Keefe in 12N. Photo source.
Twelfth Night (or what you will) 
& What You Will (or twelfth night)

Seen on: Thursday, 3/26/15 and Friday, 3/27/15.
My grade: 12N: B-. WYW: B+.

Plot and Background
Twins Viola and Sebastian are separated in a sea wreck, and presume the other is dead. Washed ashore in Illyria, Viola disguises herself as a young man and goes to work for the Duke Orsino, with whom she falls in love. He sends her to woo Olivia, who in her mourning will receive no petitioners. She, of course, falls in love with "Cesario" and hijinks ensue. Meanwhile, Olivia's cousin Sir Toby and his cohorts run afoul of Olivia's steward Malvolio, and set out to humiliate him. Hijinks, etc. And then Sebastian appears and confuses everyone, including himself. Twelfth Night is believed to have been written in 1601 or 1602 by William Shakespeare. Bedlam here presents two different cuttings of the text with two very different styles (and genderings of roles).

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew the source play, of course, having seen it countless times (including the quite good film version with Imogen Stubbs and the near-perfect Globe transplant with Mark Rylance). I also knew, having seen their productions of Saint Joan, Hamlet, and Sense and Sensibility, that Bedlam produces some breathtakingly honest work, with a good spirit of play to it.


Play: I saw WYW first, so I think that's how I'm going to structure this section. First impressions and all that.

WYW is a joyful, giddy flight in white (see design notes). Even as it starts with a tear-stained Viola mourning her brother's death, and Orsino obsessively listening to music to sooth his wounded heart, a sense of joy and play permeate this production. There's a bit of text flexibility here - not only shifting pronouns to reflect a woman playing Sir Toby, but a shuffling of lines to speakers (when, say, minor characters have been excised from the play altogether), a shuffling of soliloquies within scenes - nothing feels particularly foolhardy or unearned, because it's still in service of the story. They've also added an interesting duality to the performance of Viola/Cesario. While Susannah Millonzi carries all of Viola's role, she more often than not shares Cesario's interactions with Tom O'Keefe - performing Cesario as the others perceive him. This pays off extremely well, of course, when O'Keefe appears later as her missing brother Sebastian. For, even if O'Keefe and Millonzi look nothing alike, of course Sebastian and Cesario look the same! Why, they could be twins! Other fun highlights include ice cream cones as pacifiers (you'll see what I mean). There was one choice I couldn't quite reckon, which was the use of paint. The show takes place in a white-painted void, and all the characters are wearing white clothing. So when the first character suddenly has bright paint smeared across him, my first instinct was to read into that paint, some - what? introduction of emotion, perhaps, or a new immersion in love. However, the moment that actor - not changing his costume - switches to a different character, the entire meaning of that paint smear is lost. It can't mean the same for every character he's playing, and thus the specificity of the painting is lost. Unless the real intent of the paint is just to messy up what was a pristine world. If that's the case, it's still a bit of a murky choice, but I guess I can understand the rationale.

If WYW is the first few giddy sips of champagne, a world semi-consequence-free, 12N is three or four cups of gin into a night of melancholy drinking. Here Toby is a mean and dour drunk, Andrew a soused and compliant fool (rather than the primping dandy of WYW), and Olivia is still deeply in mourning for her brother. The change in Malvolio's character (see cast notes) may have had one of the larger tonal effects, however. The subplot of the gulling and humiliation of Malvolio is typically one of the comic highlights of the show, despite its nastiness. But with this Malvolio, a man less mean than merely proper, Toby's cruelty is thrown into sharper relief, and the whole thing is just nastier. It's harder to side with anyone in that particular conflict, and you long for it to be over. For all that 12N is a more serious take on the matter, it does descend into its own brand of chaos and absurdity - turning the would-be duel between Andrew and Cesario into a puppet show, or the scene with All the Reveals into a frantic game of hat-changing and glasses-tossing. Unfortunately, this production ultimately didn't work for me. The tone in general felt off, the comedy felt forced whereas in WYW it flowed easily. And there was something weak in the love triangle and the portrayal of Viola's conflict.
Okay, but which one should I see?: If you can see only one of them, I'd recommend WYW as being the more fun ride, even if it does play a bit more fast and loose with the text than 12N. If you'd really like to hear some of the songs the play is known for, see 12N. But I should warn you either production will be a bit confusing if you're not already very familiar with the play.

Cast: In WYW, Susannah Millonzi is an effective Viola and an even more effective Maria - here she shows off her true skills as a character actress. Her Maria has a high nasal voice, cat eye glasses hiding a poker face, and a generally stiff posture. This makes any deviation from this delightful, as when every muscle in her face twitches, holding in laughter at Malvolio's vanity. In 12N, she is again a fine Olivia, but shines once more in her comic performance as a soppy Sir Andrew Aguecheek, slurring her speech and posture so that the whole thing seems to be leaning into whatever thought Andrew can't quite articulate.

Edmund Lewis plays Malvolio and a handful of smaller roles in both productions. What's most striking, though, is how distinct his two Malvolios are. In WYW he is the more familiar figure - sanctimonious, vain, and with an expression you wouldn't mind punching off his face. In 12N, however, he plays the man with a much quieter (if confused) dignity. He is a man of pride more than vanity, at sea in a storm of clowns and clods. And because his treatment of Sir Toby, et al, is less spiteful in 12N than is often played, it makes Toby's response all the uglier and more unpleasant.

Andrus Nichols, Bedlam's not-so-secret weapon, is consistently good in all the roles she plays, though she clearly has the most fun as Sir Toby in WYW, drunk but not so drunk that she can't tell a hawk from a handsaw. Her attachment to Maria feels real (and the more scandalous as they change pronouns in WYW to reflect her gender), and her revenge against Malvolio feels justified. Nichols's Olivia is more quick to leave mourning aside than Millonzi's, but then that reflects the overall tone of WYW versus 12N. In 12N, Nichols plays a relaxed and confident Orsino, one who, while not ready to die of love, is at least inconvenienced by its lack of reciprocity. Her 12N Maria has good spitfire in her, but one worries about the future of her marriage to Sir Toby, as his drunken behavior clearly frustrates and hurts her far more than it pleases her.

Tom O'Keefe, like Lewis, plays his primary supporting role, Feste, in both 12N and WYW. In the former he is the more familiar figure of the wise fool, quick on the draw with his wits, an intelligent if angry glint in his eye (and his guitar and song at the ready). He is one to rely on in a plot, and one to fear in a fight. In WYW, his Feste is much more the simple child than is typically seen. Certainly, he still draws the same logical tricks as Feste always does, but he seems somewhat surprised to have landed each time on his feet. He's a sweet child, but perhaps one prone to kick. In WYW, O'Keefe also pairs with Millonzi to share the role of Cesario, and holds the balance well.

Eric Tucker, who is also the director, is unfortunately the weak link here. He's not a bad actor, but he's not really a character actor. This was most apparent in 12N, where he played Viola, Sebastian, and Toby - with nothing to distinguish these roles physically or vocally but a hat or a pair of glasses (the reunion of the twins would have been incomprehensible had I not already known the play). He is at his best with small side commentary rather than with primary action-moving - and so some of his asides as Toby in 12N were quite successful, and his Andrew in WYW got many well-deserved laughs.

Design: The set for both is a white box, and there the similarities end. While 12N gives its players "rehearsal furniture" - a long folding table, four chairs, and too many bottles of alcohol, WYW is largely in the void, and perhaps the better for it. With nothing to trip over, the actors themselves are their own obstacles and movers (the staging of Malvolio's letter scene is of particular delight). Valerie T. Bart's costumes for 12N are basically street clothes, a somewhat familiar sight for those who've seen Bedlam shows before, but her costumes for WYW are much more eye-catching: all versions of white, a dress, a pencil skirt, a sweater over a polo shirt, leather shoes, kitten heels, vest and slacks - even the actor's faces are tinted whiter. And with everything white, every introduction of paint stands out the stronger.


Running: Now playing at Dorothy Strelsin Theatre (Bedlam Theatre) - Opening March 28, 2015 and March 29, 2015. Closing: May 2, 2015
Category: straight plays running in rep with each other
Length: 12N: 2 hours, no intermission. WYW: 1 hour, 50 minutes, no intermission.

Creative Team

Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Eric Tucker
Designers: Valerie T. Bart (Costume), Les Dickert (Lighting).
Cast: Edmund Lewis, Susannah Millonzi, Andrus Nichols, Tom O'Keefe, Eric Tucker.

Andrus Nichols and Eric Tucker as Orsino and Viola in 12N. Photo source.

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