PlayMakers Repertory Company
Through March 19
You’ve just survived a shipwreck off the coast of a foreign land in the company of your captain. Immediately, you:
(A) collect your wits and belongings and book safe passage home
(B) turn transvestite, then seek a position in the court of the local head of state
Since Twelfth Night
's central character, Viola, chooses the second option instead of the first, the question of necessity arises early in such an outlandish opening plot choice. A few years back, I would have said a similar question of necessity faced any further local productions of the Shakespearean comedy, since regional artists mounted fifteen (count 'em!) iterations of the work in the fourteen years between 1997 and 2010.
But with only a single touring and local production apiece since then, PlayMakers Repertory Company’s current reading arrives at a time when our market has finally grown less supersaturated with identical shipwrecked twins, heartsick dukes, and clueless killjoys in garish yellow socks.
Even so, the case for this production initially seems to rest on narrow grounds. On Tim Mackabee’s conspicuously cool granite poolside set, costume designer Anne Kennedy’s obsession with the photography of mid-century society photographer Slim Aarons finds expression in a sumptuous banquet of watermelon, cream, lemon, wheat, and aqua-tinted designer garb, punctuated by bolder choices that give the boorish Sir Toby Belch (Bradford Cover) clothes “good enough to drink in.”
But, magazine cover models aside, what else does associate artistic director Jerry Ruiz see when placing this 415-year-old work among the idle rich on the Mediterranean coast in 1959?
Shakespeare’s text has always been a meditation on love and its several counterfeits. Early on, the steward Malvolio (a strong Ray Dooley) is comedically duped by pranksters Maria (a robust Julia Gibson), Sir Toby, and Andrew Aguecheek (Geoffrey Culbertson) into thinking that his boss, the wealthy countess Olivia, loves him.
Matters grow far more serious as Viola (an earnest, oft-bewildered Allison Altman) attempts, in her chosen drag, to correct not just the sexism but the solipsism of Duke Orsino’s fixation on the aloof Olivia (an engaging Jenny Latimer). There’s clear reason to fear when Myles Bullock’s louche, charismatic Duke darkly insists that no woman can possibly abide “the beating of so strong a passion/ As love doth give my heart.” The words bear a double warning, since he says them to the disguised Viola, who by then has fallen in love with him.
Viola is also clearly shaken when Feste, the fool, makes his enigmatic but grave assessment that, like the sea, Orsino’s mind is “a very opal”—ever changing, and ever inconstant. No regional production of Twelfth Night
has indicated with greater clarity exactly what Viola is getting herself into in her pursuit.
The same can hardly be said for the brigand Antonio (Tristan Parks), whose affections for Viola’s estranged brother Sebastian (Schuyler Mastain), are staged unambiguously but curiously unadorned. Sebastian’s inconstancy (and possible bisexuality), welcoming Antonio’s largess before accepting Olivia’s marriage proposal, remains a surface curiously left unscratched in this incomplete theatrical inquest into loves both false and true.