Chad Beckett/review | 'Twelfth Night' needs to be a little more convincing

Chad Beckett/review | 'Twelfth Night' needs to be a little more convincing

Krannert Center for Performing Arts hosts Shakespeare again this month as "Twelfth Night (or What you Will)" takes up residence at the Colwell Playhouse. Introduced to the printed page in the 1623 First Folio, this comedy operates through deception and mistaken identity on several levels and is noted for the many occasions where actors break the fourth wall. These monologues outline stories of love delivered by many messengers, alternatively misdirected or returned to its sender, with hilarity, as always, being the outcome.

At its base, "Twelfth Night" is a one-way aristocratic love triangle (A loves B, B loves C and C loves A), with subplots of prankish behavior exhibited by the help and a few hangers on. The story is accessible to a modern audience without translating the action to a present-day setting, but it still requires a seasoned troupe of actors to deliver the goods. The text itself is on the dry side, so soliloquies must be snappy and dialogue must accentuate the key terms and phrases to be entertaining.

As of opening night, this production did not quite hit all of its marks. On the positive side, the set perfectly evoked a grand garden retreat near the Adriatic (just as the author intended), the sound was clear and never cut out, the lighting was superb and the movement of the players and props always on cue and well placed. The brief fight scenes were well choreographed, the costumes were impeccable and the choice of setting (vaguely late-19th-/early-20th-century New Orleans) excellent.

On the other hand, too many of the soliloquys and important exchanges were delivered dispassionately. The prime example lies with the interaction between the character Viola, who, disguised as a man-servant for a local nobleman, must win the love of Lady Olivia on her master's behalf. We are supposed to believe that Viola carries out the task so persuasively that Olivia actually falls for the messenger ... and that's funny, you see, because the messenger is really a woman!

Alas, I didn't buy it. While both Viola and Olivia (portrayed by Ellen Magee and Alexandra Smith, respectively) got all their lines right, there was nothing convincing about Viola's method or of Olivia being ensnared by the effort. Viola must express herself as if her sole object is to "write loyal cantons of contemned love," while Olivia must convince the audience that her love for the disguised Viola is so wide that truly no "wit nor reason can my passion hide." That said, Viola's "epiphany" speech was well read and contained just the right level of "heavens, what have I done?" concern.

There were some marksmen of diction and timing, including Robert Gerard Anderson's brilliant interpretation of Malvolio, the pompous butler to Olivia. Every sentence uttered by this gifted veteran actor gave an exact measure of wit and whimsy. Raffeal Sears and Jessica Kadish, playing respectively as Olivia's Uncle Sir Toby and her maidservant Maria, both expressed the devil-may-care attitude that one would expect on the Feast of Epiphany.

Maya Prentiss added a magnificent interpretation of Olivia's Clown, Feste, taking a Fool character usually played by a disheveled man and transforming it to into a sort of Creole-influenced Josephine Baker. History tells us that the real Twelfth Night was essentially a second Mardi Gras; more is the pity that these characters were for support rather than to lead.

Director Matthew Arbour was quoted as wanting this production to avoid "giddy romance" and instead focus on "volatility and passion." Whatever his aim, he should be wary of giddy volatility and the avoidance of passion. With a little work, I think it may yet deliver.

Chad Beckett, a local attorney, has reviewed all manner of performances at local venues for The News-Gazette since 1995. He can be contacted at csbeckett@gmail.com.

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