The Classic Theatre has for its brief existence brought San Antonio imaginative, professional, and approachable productions of the dramatic canon’s most interesting and important plays. Their latest effort takes on Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, arguably Shakespeare’s darkest and most multilayered comedy, in a wonderfully entertaining production blessed with competent and often hilarious performances. Director Diane Malone sets the piece in a late ’60s world of free love and ambiguous sexuality, giving it a potent (though ultimately overwhelming) hit of good cheer.
Malone plays up Twelfth Night’s comic dimension with a light touch, although sometimes at the cost of its darker, more violent undercurrents. Still, the world that Malone and the lively ensemble create provides a genuinely amusing playground for rich acting and design possibilities.
For Twelfth Night, those possibilities are mostly about mixed-up desire, gender-bending, and mistaken identities. The play tells the story of Viola (Chelsea Fry), who finds herself stranded in a strange land after a shipwreck separates her from her brother Sebastian (Alan Utley). Seeking to enter the employ of the land’s Duke Orsino (Jeremy Peer), portrayed here as a long-haired, bare-chested swinger idol, Viola has the bright idea to disguise herself as a young man, Cesario. She soon finds herself falling in love with the Duke, while becoming his favorite servant and confidant. Orsino, though, pines for another, and so sends Viola/Cesario to woo the bereaved Lady Olivia (Asia Ciaravino) on his behalf.
Eager to please but finding herself in a rather awkward situation, Viola as Cesario woos away. Endowed with her gentle touch, pretty face, and intimate knowledge of a woman’s heart, though, she woos a little too well. Olivia falls head over heels for Viola/Cesario, oblivious to her real identity, and becomes ever more impatient with the Duke’s overtures. Meanwhile, Viola’s identically dressed brother, Sebastian, washes ashore and finds himself in the middle of the love triangle, mistaken for Cesario, suddenly sought after, and eventually married to Olivia. Naturally, much madness and merrymaking ensues.
In the Classic’s production, the romantic country of Illyria is a world saturated with ’60s rock, British-invasion fashion, and loose sexuality. The set is relatively simple and nothing to write home about, adorned with a few token registers of the era. The costumes are striking, colorful, and thoughtfully designed. But the real gem of the concept is Tom Masinter’s original music, which works surprisingly well with Shakespeare’s many songs, capturing how wonderfully evocative they are of the characters’ promiscuous love play, revelries, and longing drenched in sweet romantic pangs. Rick Sanchez sings the songs beautifully as the Fool and minstrel-for-hire Feste. His portrayal is a puckish, androgynous, mischievous hippy singer-songwriter whose performances mix sage reflections on love with wry irony.
The milieu allows all sorts of fun gender refractions. One of my favorites is a scene in which Viola, playing Cesario, brushes Duke Orsino’s long, flowing hair while trying to explain why his suit for Olivia is going nowhere. The scene curiously feminizes Orsino while complicating Viola’s already complicated gender. Later, we see Orsino coming on to Viola despite himself, even before he knows she’s a woman. The homoeroticism (sort of) between Fry’s Viola and Peer’s Orsino is amusingly and wittily played. Likewise, the lesbian homoeroticism (again, sort of) between Fry’s earnest Viola and Ciaravino’s sad, sultry, and multilayered Olivia plays beautifully.
The ’60s setting also helps the intoxicated, celebratory revels of the comic subplot. Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch (played as an Andy Garcia-esque aging hippy by Carl Rush) and his effete drinking pal, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (in a hilarious performance by Joel Crabtree) conspire with the Fool, Feste, and the maid Maria (Anna Gangai) to play a cruel joke on Olivia’s trusted and stuffy butler, Malvolio (Donald Bayne). The scene in which Malvolio discovers the “love letter” Maria has forged from Olivia to him while the low comic characters watch, hidden, is pricelessly funny, with a wonderfully farcical use of potted plants.
The acting is uniformly clear and competent, with particularly good work from Fry, Ciaravino, and Sanchez. It may seem banal to say so, but they all really think the thoughts, which is perhaps the most important thing to nail in Shakespeare. Fry’s Viola is well-timed, bright, and wonderfully baffled by her circumstances. Ciaravino’s Olivia builds beautifully and vulnerably from mourning to sultry to desperately hungry for a romantic and sexual connection. The relationship between Olivia and Viola is often funny, genuine, and spontaneous. Utley’s Sebastian is honest and boyishly charming, playing perfectly into his mistaken identity. Sanchez is nimble, quick, and mysterious as the Fool, though not as darkly strange as many versions of Feste.
Compared to Sanchez’s, Rush’s, and Crabtree’s hilarious and genuine performances in the comic subplot, Gangai’s Maria rings relatively false and flat. She gives a sense of the character’s knack for mischief-making but none at all of her underlying need to do so in order to impress her crush, Sir Toby. Similarly, Bayne’s Malvolio, in many ways the most interesting character, gets something of a surface treatment. Bayne captures his stuffiness and uprightness with precision, but not his vulnerability or his genuine love for Olivia, and he therefore misses the potency and pathos of his breakdown at the end when he swears to “be revenged on the whole lot of you!”
Bayne’s and Gangai’s performances speak directly to what this production ultimately lacks: the undercurrents of violence, loss, and despair that alternate with the high and low comedy. Even Peer’s smooth-talking Orsino, as appropriate as his persona is to the show’s concept, remains on one level, never capturing Orsino’s horrible capacity for brutality. At the end of the play, the character hints at murdering Olivia and threatens to kill his own beloved servant Viola/Cesario. This production’s light-hearted end castrates the scene of its dark side, leaving Orsino relatively harmless, Viola simplistically and cheerfully willing to go to her death if necessary, and the final, inevitable pairing off of characters is robbed of its inherent life-or-death stakes. What makes Twelfth Night such a lovely piece of theater is precisely its movement between hilarity and despair, its tonal sine wave that can at its best leave audiences with a bittersweet taste. A romantic comedy for those who marry can become tragic for those left out.
Although the Classic Theatre’s production fails to reach Twelfth Night’s low notes, it nails the high notes delightfully, entertainingly, and joyfully. Because it is such a rich and complex play, even focusing on the funny half turns out a thoroughly entertaining and approachable show. The actors, the timing, the music, and the overall thrust of the piece delight and impress. The audience on Saturday night clearly had a good time, as I suspect anyone would. The mere fact that the production can be critiqued on the level of its tonal emphasis attests to the competence and clarity of this excellent company. •