By Karen Isaacs
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is one of his most performed comedies. The production now at Yale Rep through Saturday, April 6 gives us a good representation of the play despite some major flaws.
It is a typical Shakespearean comedy of romance and mistaken identities. As in several other of his plays, we have siblings — in this case and young man and woman – who each believe the other has drowned in a ship disaster. We meet the young woman, Viola first as she arrives in Illyria and decides to masquerade as a young man and serve the duke, Orsino. The Duke is in love with the beautiful Olivia who is denying his suit while in deep mourning for the death of her brother. It is in her household that most of the action occurs. Viola becomes the Duke’s messenger to Olivia, who finds herself attracted to the young man. Later the Duke also finds himself attracted to his young servant to his chagrin. Within Olivia’s household we have her drunken uncle, Sir Toby – one of Shakespeare’s great drunks – who has brought an insipid suitor (Sir Andrew Aguecheek) to woo Oliva and supply Sir Toby with money. Also we have Olivia’s waiting lady (Maria), her clown (Feste) and her very proper steward (Malvolio). The subplot involves Maria, Sir Toby and Feste playing an elaborate and rather cruel joke on the proper Malvolio.
Shakespeare’s comedies often focus on the masks we all wear in public and how often these masks and pretentions make us ridiculous. As in almost all Shakespeare comedies, the play ends happily with not one but two weddings.
Artistic director James Bundy in his program notes says that Shakespeare’s plays “illuminate universal truths and offer limitless opportunities for interpretation.” He goes on to add that in “each time and venue and culture, artists have located Shakespeare’s language and characters in the immediately personal tastes, desires, and preoccupations of their experiences and their moments.”
While this is true, it is also true that these transformations are not always successful. The creating of happy endings for many Shakespeare tragedies during the 17th and 18th centuries surely subverted the works themselves.
In judging these transpositions of time, place or mood, one must consider if the changes add another dimension to our understanding of the play or its meaning, diminish or subvert it, or does the interpretation neither add nor detract from the original.
This is pertinent because director Carl Cofield has called his production “Afro-futuristic” which apparently means that the cast is entirely African-American, some of the costumes have African influences and technology is used throughout the production.
Does it work? The answer is sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. This is a production where the interpretation at times diminishes or distracts from the play, rarely illuminates it but mostly is neutral.
During the first few minutes, it seemed as though the technology would distract from the work. It opens with Duke Orsino putting on virtual reality goggles and a variety of sounds and effects drowning out the lines of the play. Not a promising beginning.
The pluses in this production are certainly the performances by Tiffany Denise Hobbs as Olivia, Allen Gilmore as Malvolio and William DeMeritt as Orsino. These performers not only capture their characters but they seem comfortable with the Shakespearean dialogue.
While Chivas Michael has good moments as Sir Toby, his dialogue suffers partly because of the accent he uses in the play. Thus we lose many of his funnier lines. Moses Ingram as Viola, never quite convinces us (and anyone) that she is a young man. Few of the other performers stand out; as I was watching the show, I realized that I had seen better performances in other productions for almost of the characters.
That doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy this production. Certainly the futuristic projections by Brittany Bland are excellent and the costumes by Mika H. Eubanks are also very good, particularly the costumes for Oliva. Frederick Kennedy has composed music for the show as well as an effective sound design.
As is typical in these comedies, the humor of Sir Toby and his cohorts is both verbally and nonverbally suggestive and scatological. These were characters Shakespeare wrote to appeal to what were the called “the groundlings” – people who paid very little and stood in front of the stage within easy range of lobbing rotten fruit at the performers.
If we view these comedies as fantasies about love – I’m not sure that is a valid interpretation – then this production with its use of the virtual reality goggles and other technology – can reinforce that point. The question remains though, is that a valid interpretation.
With all the gimmicks, overall Shakespeare’s lines seem an afterthought to both performers and the director.
If you have never seen Twelfth Night, this production will give you a good idea of the play but you may not understand what a fine piece of writing it is. I often wonder if these types of productions encourage people to see additional Shakespeare productions (that may be better) or discourage them. With this production, I hope it will encourage members to see other plays and productions.
Twelfth Night is at the University Theater, 222 York St., New Haven. For tickets visit Yale Rep or call 203-432-1234.
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