Doing Shakespeare proud at the Seattle Rep

A gleeful, thousand-year romp is served up with confidence and delight in this production of Twelfe Night, directed by the Rep's artistic director, David Esbjornson.
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Christine Marie Brown as Viola and Barzin Akhavan as Orsinio in Shakespeare's <i>Twelfe Night</i> at the Seattle Rep. (Chris Bennion)

A gleeful, thousand-year romp is served up with confidence and delight in this production of Twelfe Night, directed by the Rep's artistic director, David Esbjornson.

"The rain, it raineth every day," sings the clown Feste, celebrating the onset of our other season. But nothing damps down the outstanding production of Shakespeare's Twelfe Night now playing at the Seatte Rep. In this Illyria, even the rain is magical; the enormous moon descends on cue, while the sky throws up hues like a drunken rainbow. Swings and coffins alike are bedecked with creepers. Scimitars clash; a suit of armor – legacy of a passing Crusader? – provides inadequate protection. Sir Toby Belch wrestles with a harmonica and a Christmas tree, and sartorial excess in purple or yellow is sometimes mocked but always worn to full advantage. See this play.

Twelfe Night is a typically Shakespearean tale of shifting identity. Shipwrecked in Illyria, a fantasy land of romance and menace, young Viola finds herself caught up in a love triangle with a duke and a doleful (but beautiful!) lady. Unlike that lady who mourns her brother with self-indulgent excess, our heroine puts aside the loss of her beloved twin in the shipwreck; putting aside her gender too, she casts herself as a young man in the love intrigues of the court. Meanwhile, the doleful (but beautiful!) lady struggles to contain the tippling excesses of her dependent uncle and his cronies; their antics provide a comic counterpoint to the courtly courting. Misprision on all sides leads to broken hearts and heads, but in the end the good end well, the not-so-good end well too, and the self-important ends so badly that we feel heartily sorry for him.

From the title's anachronism – it's more usually given a contemporary spelling of Twelfth - I feared a pompous or an earnest failure. I had not enjoyed the director's The Great Gatsby in last year's season. I was prepared for a tedious attempt to recreate Elizabethan stage conditions, or perhaps a plodding period piece: Illyria is modern-day Albania, and the Duke could be reborn as - heaven help us - a communist strongman.

All too often audiences are (mis)treated to this "trope of timeless relevance": a Shakespeare play set in a particular era to make a particular point. It's a gambit tempting to directors who fear to lose their audience in thickets of language, and who struggle for an original staging of a play that has been in performance for four centuries. They may from time to time succeed, especially on film: Ian McKellen's Richard III was effectively Hitlerian. But the comedies, and Twelfe Night especially, lose their vim when a director straps them to a high concept: Their settings are too fantastical, their tone too light to survive such treatment.

Happily, the Rep's artistic director, David Esbjornson, understands this. His production is a gleeful thousand-year romp with a grab bag of costumes, music, props, and gestures. Anachronisms mostly support the comic turns but also create and flesh out the fantastical environment which Shakespeare went on to develop and populate in The Tempest. The director borrows from Elizabethan traditions of stagecraft, deftly interweaving them with subtle use of modern technology. The result is a production that does not take itself too seriously yet strongly conveys both the blithe and the dark spirits of this engaging play.

Most of all, details have been attended to. Servants, not stagehands, move the furniture on and off; they do it briskly so the action never falters. The minor roles are filled with strong actors, fully committed to their parts. The performers are expressive with their bodies, gesturing broadly and moving boldly around the stage, fully inhabiting and taking advantage of the set's opportunities. Most scenes are given enough business to engage the audience's attention, yet the language is clearly spoken and clearly illustrated by the characters' engagements with one another. When the comedy infects the serious plot, the actors blend them with confidence. Olivia's mourning, and later her passion, are nearly preposterous, yet she plays them with chin held high.

Seattle Rep audiences tend to clap as loudly for the set when the curtain first rises as they do for the performers when it falls at the finis. No chance for that here: Esbjornsen launches us quickly into the play with a delightful coup de theatre. This is not a set that dazzles with excess; instead it provides a space, understated and artful, for the players to play. They are literally "on the boards," though these boards have suffered shipwreck. Downstage right, the Christmas tree in an interior scene is later echoed by another spruce, outdoors, in the same spot. That's the kind of laudable continuity, simple yet elegant, that marks most of this production's design.

I am consistently disappointed when actors, especially comedic actors, most especially Shakesperian comedians, deliver their asides to the wings or the air, rather than the audience. This production has no such timid respect for the fourth wall. From the fool Feste's first appearance while the house lights are still up to Sir Andrew's curtain call, the actors engage directly and confidently with the audience. David Pichette, as an aged and seedy Feste, is called upon most often to address the spectators. A consistently fine performer, here Pichette finds an ideal outlet for his sardonic talents.

A few quibbles. The secondary pair of Olivia and Sebastian are more charismatic actors than the Duke and Viola, so the status relationships aren't quite in balance. Sometimes the attraction between the characters seems signified rather than felt, and certain cues in the language are missed or contradicted. Casting an African-American Malvolio in an otherwise all-white cast is a courageous move, but uncomfortable since Malvolio's a buffoon as well as a victim.

Yet these hiccups were subsumed for me in the larger pleasures of a fine evening. "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em," says Malvolio. Whichever of these is true of Esbjornson and his cast and crew, they have achieved Shakespearean greatness: mining the past, blending it with the present, and serving up a confident and delightful production.


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