Upon entering the theater for Hartford Stage’s illuminating and luminous production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” the audience is overwhelmed by a sea of green. Alexander Dodge’s massive set occupies nearly all of the thrust stage, as if a hedge-like maze had been cut into the floor, with the tops of the concentric circles even with the first row of seats. These serve as the walking paths for the citizens of Illyria, connected by four small wooden bridges, that come together in a circular playing space center stage that rises and sets through the theater’s trap door.
This is a visual image so striking and so original that it threatens to dominate the production, worrying one that Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak’s production of one of the the Bard’s most popular plays will be subordinated to the set. But not to fear: Tresnjak knows exactly what he is doing. He is careful to never let the set detract from the production. Instead, as the evening progresses, we see how the design works in favor of his vision, with nearly every inch serving a specific purpose to illuminate a character or accommodate a pratfall.
The set instead defines Shakespeare’s Illyria as an unusual place just a tad out of the ordinary, where obsessive love can be countered by extended mourning, where self-absorbed pomposity can be punished by excessive humiliation and torture and where a new arrival can in disguise can set hearts of both sexes fluttering.
Although this is definitely a comedy, Tresnjak’s Illyria is underlined by a sense of loss and sadness. Duke Orsino, increasingly negligent of his royal duties, spends his days and nights laconically absorbed in his unrequited love for the Lady Olivia, who with her black clad ladies in waiting, has grieved over the past year for the loss of her father and brother. Even the play’s clowns in residence, the constantly inebriated Sir Toby Belch and the hapless, clueless Sir Andrew Aguecheek, inspire pity, despite their foolish behavior. Perhaps lost most of all is Olivia’s steward Malvolio, whose superior, condescending manner prompts ridicule and harassment from his fellow servants.
This world is shaken up by the arrival of the shipwrecked Viola who, although mourning her own twin brother Sebastian who she assumes has been lost at sea, finds the resilience to disguise herself as a boy to enjoy greater freedom and flexibility and seeks to serve the Duke, who takes a rather strong liking to the boy. Viola, now renamed Cesarion, is assigned the task of essentially wooing Olivia on Orsino’s account, although the Lady quickly finds herself enamored of the plucky, straightforward boy herself. We’ll later on discover that the nearly identical Sebastian has indeed survived and is himself wandering the byways of Illyria with a new friend, Antonio, who is wanted on some old open warrant in the town.
Tresnjak assures that the production never lags and makes it easy to follow the action and understand Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. He has allowed himself to be playful as he creates deliciously unexpected stage images, such as a near-naked Orsino rising to center stage mid-bath while dispensing orders to Viola/Cesarion and a kimono-clad, umbrella carrying Olivia lost amidst her similarly garbed ladies fending off Viola’s messages from her master. He knows just how much slapstick to include without unbalancing his production, with a great deal of that being surprising as well as creative.
“Twelfth Night” provides an opportunity for Hartford Stage to welcome back Kate McCluggage who impressed last year in Tresnjak’s staging of “Bell, Book and Candle.” As Viola, she professes an earnestness and professional demeanor that not only makes her transformation into Cesarion believable but also provides the foundation that allows Orsino and Olivia to fall in love with her. McCluggage ably balances Viola’s increasingly thwarted efforts to keep Olivia at bay with her often unconscious delight in being close to the Duke, as well as finding the appropriate humor in her efforts to pass as a boy, even when confronted by Sir Andrew, jealous of her seeming success in attracting the attentions of Olivia. Their attempts at a duel are quite funny, with both equally matched in the fear department.
Stacey Yen’s Olivia is a sweet delight as she alternates between harsh disdain for Orsino and impetuous excitement for the Duke’s young page. It’s nice to see her transition from the grieving sister to a warmer, almost childlike embrace of life as her determination to win over Viola grows. Her exhilarated response to the discovery that there are what look to be two Cesarions running around Illyria is one of the best line deliveries of the evening. Lea Coco looks and sounds great as the love-struck Duke, clearly conveying the natural sense of authority that he has sacrificed in his pursuit of Olivia.
Michael Spencer-Davis, through his appearance, movement and voice, immediately provides the audience with an exact sense of Sir Toby Belch. For the most part, he plays Sir Toby’s inveterate drinking and rude behavior straight, not milking the part unnecessarily for laughs, which actually should be said of everyone in the cast. Adam Green is appropriately foppish as the stringy-haired Sir Andrew, who in this production is clearly being manipulated by Sir Toby into marrying Olivia which would insure Sir Toby’s presence in the Lady’s household. Davis’ Toby has no use for and no respect for Sir Andrew, which contributes to the depth of character found in Tresnjak’s production.
Jennifer Regan is fine in portraying the wit and abrupt cruelty of Olivia’s maid Maria who devises the plot by which the servants will embarrass Malvolio, and Che Ayende is agile and authorative as Olivia’s wise and cunning fool, who has helped maintain his mistress’s humanity and sanity during her period of mourning. Joe Paulik makes for a handsome noble Sebastian who conveys a decent resemblance to his character’s sister, but surely matches McCluggage in the earnestness department.
But of the cast it is the remarkable Bruce Turk who delivers the most assured, layered and nuanced performance as Malvolio. His haughty disdain for his fellow servants as he guides his beloved mistress Olivia over the set’s small bridges demonstrates how he uses his position to lord it over those he views as his subordinates. A bit later, his exhilaration (and facial expressions) when duped to believe that Olivia has feelings for him reveals the loneliness and insecurity of a man who has indeed viewed himself as being an outsider from everyone around him. In Turk’s priceless performance, he makes Malvolio both tragic and repugnant at the same time, particularly following his childlike outburst following his excessive humiliation and false imprisonment.
The sextant-like open sphere in which Malvolio is imprisoned is just one of the many surprises contained in Dodge’s set. This is one time in which a reviewer must really encourage readers to see the set for themselves–it is an impressive achievement that remarkably is entirely in service to the production.
Tresnjak’s frequent costume collaborator Linda Cho has had an obvious field day with this production, designing a full array of costumes based on the work of 1920’s figures such as Maxfield Parrish, Paul Poiret, Picasso and Erte. From Feste the fool’s checkered Pierrot outfit to the tight kimonos and sultry dresses of Olivia and her entourage, from the vests and shirts of Orsino’s court to Sir Andrew’s overdone traveling clothes, Cho’s designs are a feast for the eyes and quite often engender a smile of delight. For McCluggage’s Cesarion, she has created a costume that fits right in with the Duke’s detail, but distinguishes the character whenever she is onstage while allowing for flexibility of movement.
Matthew Richards’ lighting accommodates the complexities of the set, careful not to let light disappear into the space between the “hedges” while showcasing the bright green in all of its glory. He also creates a splendid backdrop that transitions from yellow to purple and provides one of the final images of the work.
But the image that I think I will take away from this production of “Twelfth Night” is one that Tresnjak has carefully plotted to use the maze design for maximum humorous effect. As Malvolio imagines that his dreams of loving Olivia can be fulfilled, all of the plotters, Olivia’s ladies and even Orsino’s male servants hide in the hedges behind the steward, proceeding forward in varied groups and quickly dropping beneath the hedge tops as Malvolio spins around. With Turk’s exquisitely twisted performance and Tresnjak’s choreography in the maze, this is a scene that demonstrates the delightful chances that a director can take in melding the visual and the vocal and creating a scene that captures the excitement of live theater.
“Twelfth Night” runs through June 16 at Hartford Stage. For information and tickets, call 860.527.5151 or visit the Hartford Stage website at www.hartfordstage.org.