Crowd-pleasing gets under way even before the show officially starts in the Seattle Shakespeare Company's boisterously high-spirited production of Twelfth Night.
While the audience gathers in the lobby of the Seattle Center House Theatre, in stream caroling actors, clad in Dickensian motley, to engage everyone in parlor games and singing. The merry-making carries on for a spell after everyone has taken seats. And so Director Stephanie Shine sets the mood for our embarkation to Illyria — the delirious never-neverland where Twelfth Night's carnival of confused desire and mistaken identity transpires. What follows is an eminently entertaining Yuletide sojourn that italicizes the antic revelry but barely acknowledges — let alone explores — the darker currents of Shakespeare's mature comedy.
Over the past few years, SSC has enlarged the scope of its ambitions considerably. Expansion of the mainstage season from three to four plays (the fourth usually a non-Shakespeare classic) was followed in 2008 by the company's merger with Wooden O Productions, the outdoor summer outfit that has been presenting free Shakespeare in the park since 1994. Year-round shows (indoors and outdoors), together with education programs and extensive touring around the state, now bring SSC to an annual audience of over 40,000. According to the NEA's Shakespeare in American Communities initiative, SSC has become "the standard-bearer of Shakespeare in Washington state."
Indeed, Seattle Shakes (as the company is affectionately known) once again finds itself, by default, in the position that inspired its founding back in the early 1990s: to fill the niche for professional homegrown Shakespeare. This season, the bard's absence from the boards of Seattle's biggest companies (with the exception of Intiman's Othello, which was an import from New York) leaves room for SSC's ambitions to be a regional contender with the Ashland-based Oregon Shakespeare Festival. (Coincidentally, the current run of Twelfth Night has given Shakespeare fans a chance to see the two companies literally back to back, thanks to the Seattle Rep's recent offering of Bill Cain's thoughtful, brilliantly crafted Shakespeare fantasy, Equivocation, which installed the original team that premiered the play last April at Ashland in the Bagley Wright Theatre.)
The quality of SSC's interpretations is notoriously unpredictable. One of the company's chief strengths has been a kind of unbuttoned attitude that gives directors and actors a good deal of freedom, with, on occasion, memorably animated results. (I'm especially fond of the fanciful Pericles Sheila Daniels directed two years ago.) The company tends to steer clear of heavy-duty concept productions: Gregg Loughridge's pair of cleverly quirky but mostly misfired "chamber" stagings in the past few seasons (Richard III amid high-tech corporate capers and a Julius Caesar set in a martial-arts studio) are the exception rather than the rule.
What's more typical in this regard is the lighter-handed approach of Twelfth Night, where the Victorian "updating" is pretty much confined to the costumes. Their zanier touches — such as Orsino's fluorescent-orange topcoat — and the aggressively bright lighting conjure a trip to Mr. Sleary's Circus in Hard Times. Andrea Bryn Bush'ês simple unit set of columns and a faÃ§ade adds a seasonal flavor with decorations of candles and mistletoe.
This Twelfth Night is, moreover, an example of the SSC's generally user-friendly style, which tends to value energy and momentum over nuance. The company's laudable mission is 'êto open doors to classical plays for audiences of all ages, through intimate, daring productions.'ê In this case, though, the emphasis on accessibility makes the play feel more like New Year's Eve festivities than a bittersweet Shakespearean epiphany about illusions, about how vulnerable all of us are to — in the words of the court jester Feste — "misprision in the highest degree." At the end of the production, Feste's melancholy refrain of "the wind and the rain" is turned into a cheerful all-ensemble song-and-dance. It makes for a nicely symmetrical frame with the wassail-minded opening but keeps the play's more troubling aspects at bay.
Physicality in fact plays a substantial role in this staging. Shine — who is an accomplished actress herself and has served as a charismatic artistic director of SSC for 12 seasons — has her cast cutting lengthy capers, darting to and fro in the intimate Center House space. You're unlikely to see a more elaborate — or hilariously choreographed — version of the duel unwillingly engaged in by Cesario and Sir Andrew Aguecheek. There's even a passage for dueling guitars in the prominent musical accompaniment designed by Sean Patrick Taylor (who also plays Curio and was cast in SSC's last venture into Twelfth Night in 2003). The incidental music is especially fine, suffusing the madcap Victorian look with a romantic Mediterranean glow.
The music of Shakespeare's verse, though, often gets submerged. "If music be the food of love," with its alarmingly abrupt shifts of metaphor, should clue us in to the equally fluid slippages of identity and allegiance that we're about to encounter in Illyria. JosÃ© A. Rufino, apparently focusing on the image of a character in love with being in love, plays Duke Orsino as a hammy poseur and carelessly glides through the famous speech. As Olivia, Brenda Joyner doesn't do much with the noble lady's narcissistic grief but highlights the absurdity of her suddenly rekindled passion for Cesario/Viola. Susannah Millonzi plays the latter with touching emotional directness, but she's left to make her way more or less upstream against the production'ês frothy current. Her twin Sebastian is given a likeable performance by SSC veteran Tim Gouran, without solving the problem of his convenient gullibility. His rapport with Antonio (played with bearish loyalty by Mike Dooly), so often belabored in recent productions, doesn't register as more than a plot twist.
It's not surprising that the comic subplot of the hangers-on at Olivia's court holds our attention as the center of interest. The ensemble here carves out a delightfully woozy corner of Illyria. Dressed as a riddling gypsy, Chris Ensweiler spins through the clown/jester Feste's mind-bending verbal twists as if they were mere common sense. Ray Gonzalez plays Sir Toby as an indulgent proto-Falstaff, while, with his wonderfully weird timing, Darragh Kennan brings touches of uncontrived pathos to Toby's hapless sidekick, Sir Andrew. Carol Roscoe is shamelessly scheming as Maria, making all of us complicit in Malvolio's downfall.
John Bogar's portrayal of the obnoxiously self-righteous servant is the real stand-out of the production. The highjinks of the letter-reading scene might be failproof — Bogar delivers what Cain calls "Shakespeare's dirtiest joke" to perfection — but his Malvolio suggests more than comic humiliation. The darkness in which he is confined gives us one of this Twelfth Night's rare glimpses of what else lurks beyond Illyria's good times.
If you go: Twelfth Night is running through Dec. 27 at Seattle Center House Theatre, 305 Harrison St., Seattle. Show times and ticket information available here.