Theater review

At Shakespeare & Company, 'Twelfth Night' loses its magic in a dance hall in New Jersey

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LENOX — There is trouble in Illyria — the island setting of William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night." Under the best of circumstances, it is trouble most sublime — a merry love story involving mistaken identity, disguise, and how love unrequited becomes requited. As it happens, however, the sublime rears its head only intermittently in the treatment "Twelfth Night" is being given in Shakespeare & Company's Tina Packer Playhouse, where it is scheduled to run through Aug. 4.

In a decision that winds up more arbitrary than useful or insightful, director Allyn Burrows has set Shakespeare's romantic comedy in a New Jersey shore dance hall, circa 1959, because, Burrows says in his program notes, "that year, on the cusp of everything blowing open in the Sixties, represented a collective energy ... where so much desire was tamped down and yet continued to roil under the surface."

That bubbling, roiling energy surfaces at the get-go in what has become a signature opening — and closing — of Shakespeare & Company's Shakespeare productions: A ceremonial company dance, created by Susan Dibble. This is the end of the Fifties, so the cast of 10 strolls, lindys, jives along the length and breadth of Cristina Todesco's open setting which features lamplit cloth-covered tables and chairs upstage and a wide open dance floor across which the action flows.

Dibble's opening sequence is stylish, free-spirited and inviting. But by the time a pair of separated twin brothers have been reunited, lovers have been appropriately paired and buffoons have been left to deal with the consequences of their mischief, all that energy has dissolved. The company dance that ends the evening 2 hours feels more obligatory and forced than a natural celebration of love in all its joys.

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"Twelfth Night" begins with a shipwreck that separates twins Viola (an absolutely splendid Ella Loudon) and Sebastian (an earnest Deaon Griffin-Pressley), each of whom thinks the other has drowned. Disguised as a youth named Cesario, Viola finds employment as a servant to Duke Orsino (a strong, appealing Bryce Michael Wood) and finds herself falling in love with him. For his part, Orsino, who is sensing confusing feelings for Cesario, pines for Olivia (a somewhat abrasive and insistent Cloteal L. Horne), who has rejected his romantic entreaties. Her fancies are directed toward Cesario, who has come to her bearing letters of love from Orsino. Complications are heightened when Sebastian, who has been rescued by Martin Jason Asprey's Antonio, shows up.

And while these fools for love go about their business — don't be surprised to hear Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers' "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" as part of the show's musical melange — Shakespeare weaves in a subplot involving Olivia's severe, disapproving butler, Malvolio (grandly played by Miles Anderson in a performance that, for better and for worse, stands in isolation), who becomes the object of a cruel practical joke engineered by Olivia's fast talking uncle Sir Toby Belch (Steven Berkhimer), his pal, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Nigel Gore); Olivia's maidservant, Maria (Bella Merlin, who doesn't look like she's worked a day as anyone's maid) and the household fool and minstrel, Feste (Gregory Boover).

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The play's subtitle, "What You Will," suggests a playful, anything goes madness in Shakespeare's method; a kind of merry disorder that eventually gives way to order as true love takes charge.

But for all the energy that is expended, Burrows' production neither connects the dots nor takes advantage of its conceptual opportunities. The play's fancy, mischief and romance yearn to breathe in a more expansive, less claustrophobic environment than the one provided by Todesco. In this supposed Jersey shore community setting, the class distinctions and social pecking order of Duke Orsino's court and Olivia's household vanish into an egalitarian environment

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The secondary plot carries weight, here, to the point that the efforts of Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Maria and Feste, dominate this production in all the wrong ways.

Taking Duke Orsino's "if music be the food of love play on" literally, Burrows' production plays on with strains of music from the Fifties performed live by Boover, Berkhimer and others, and more lyrical material by Boover that draws on Shakespeare and offers a rare strain of emotional honesty and exposure.

The production too often feels at odds with itself; its inability to at least narrow, if not altogether close, the gap between, on the one hand, its less artful, more curiously shaped performances — Horne, Griffin-Pressley, Berkhimer — and, on the other, smooth, skillfully calibrated performances that acknowledge nuance, depth of meaning, detail; those almost unnoticed touches that reveal a great deal (Loudon, in particular, who, in a fully rounded performance accomplishes wondrous things).

In the end, this "Twelfth Night" falls far short of Burrows' premise and Shakespeare's promise. The music may play, but the melody doesn't linger on.


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