Twelfth Night

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Rick Lombardo
New Repertory Theatre
Newton Highlands, MA --- through April

 Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Rick Lombardo's  New Repertory Theatre production of "Twelfth Night" gets so many bits and pieces of that multifaceted masterpiece right that it is a pity to have to say that the pieces don't fit together to form an emotional whole.  Some of the bits, while well done in themselves, upset the delicate balance between instinct and artifice that centers the play.  Janie E. Howland's beautiful set is moody and magical, using the simplest of means: some draped cloth; three distressed stone cupids, suitable for a neglected garden or a decayed grand hall; and a golden glow in John Malinowski's lighting that summons up Illyria's lost Golden Age.  In  Jana Durland Howland's costumes and in some few bits of decor, it is the Jazz Age, an opulent period of wealth and self-indulgence. Illyria is a province of America, probably somewhere near Newport. There is an admirable sense of transience and recent loss in the proceedings, corresponding to the position of the story's orphaned heroines-- who are both grieving the recent additional loss of a loved only brother.  Shipwrecked Viola disguises herself as a boy to survive by taking service with the local Illyrian bigwig, Count Orsino, with whom she very quickly falls in love.  Orsino is in love with his neighbor Countess Olivia, who refuses to see him.  Orsino dispatches the "boy" Viola to woo Olivia by proxy, and the Countess promptly tumbles into love with "him".  Meanwhile Malvolio, Olivia's censorious steward, uses the occasion of a mourning household to suppress the merrymaking among Olivia's relatives and retainers below stairs, and they plot revenge by tricking Malvolio into believing that Olivia is secretly in love with his pompous puritan self.

The New Rep cast is brimming with talent and intelligence, and with the physical ability to carry off all sorts of high jinks and low comedy (except for poor Jeremiah Kissel, who soldiers on in the role of Orsino in spite of a broken leg and its requisite plaster cast and cane).   Steven Barkhimer, who plays Feste the Jester in the red rubber nose and tramp finery of a sad-eyed clown of the Chaplin/Kelly ilk, is also assigned most of the lines and business of the eliminated character Fabian.  Barkhimer plays and sings music he composed or arranged for this Twelfth Night, using a variety of instruments, and his score is exquisite: delicately alluding to each of the styles incorporated in the production, and tracing an emotional through line for each scene that includes it.  Barkhimer's line readings, too, are imbued with musicality-- the quality most missed in the rest of this otherwise engaging production.

Kissel's Orsino opens the play lounging in a cinematic pose on an oriental heap of pillows wearing a Rudolph Valentino turban, indulging himself in poetic musing on the high fantastical nature of his love sickness.  But instead of the rich and seductive voice that the actor employed as Jaques in last summer's ill-concieved "As You Like It" at Commonwealth Shakespeare, Kissel's reading of the deliciously languorous "If music be the food of love" is brisk, tight and grating-- possibly from the intensity of the character's romantic angst over Olivia, possibly because the actor's broken leg is so painful that it is all he can do to keep from screaming.  Whether it is interpretation or compensation, Kissel's is an Orsino on edge, jagged and desperate. The object of his misplaced affections, too, is jumpy: Rachel Harker's elegant fashion sketch of a flapper Countess Olivia alternates vocally between a flat white voice and little swoops and shrieks, while all her expressiveness flows into her limbs.  The poses Harker passes through are charming, and would serve well if the script were in Swahili and in need of illustrative translation.  Or if this really were a Jazz Age silent movie version of Shakespeare's play.  But the actress is working very hard to substitute for what the poets word's do easily.

Rose Liberace's Viola, on the other hand, is contained and subtle, and based on the assumption that the audience will understand what the character is saying.  A lifted eyebrow, a quick intake of breath, a swift small gesture quickly aborted,  convey worlds of inner turmoil.  She looks believably boyish in masculine wig and yachting cap, white trousers and blue blazer. But many of Liberace's line readings are over diffident, as if puzzling her way through the perils of shipwreck had dampened her spirits, and as if Viola's masculine disguise would be most effective if least noticed.  Sometimes Liberace's voice is so subdued that I had trouble hearing her from a twenty foot distance.

Richard McElvaine provides a sturdy sympathetic Captain, in splendid contrast to the actor's doubled Malvolio, a tight, twitty curlicue of a power mad prig.  I would class his performance of the role as one of the great Malvolios, except that McElvaine too buys into the Jazz notion and riffs on his lines with a vocal tic that, while amusing in itself,  spoils the rhythm of repartee in some of his scenes.  The rest of the comic crew carry this Jazz improvisation to extremes, incorporating Borsch Belt intonations and Burlesque grossnesses that even groundlings might find a bit much.  I thought that Ken Baltin got away with the liberties he took with his own speeches-- I laughed a lot-- but that all the muggery with the audience did hamper his Sir Toby's relationship to the others on stage with him.  I got a sense of the low comic actors' delight in each other's skills, which was wonderful.  (Part of what I felt was missing from the "Upstairs" characterizations was a sense of their delight in their skills as language users, as aristocrats for whom poetry was the fashion in feeling.) But I got no sense of Olivia's "household".   I found it hard to believe that a status conscious socialite like this Olivia would employ such a vulgar Maria as Dorothy Brodesser's in the very public position of gentlewoman/confidant.  And Doug Lockwood's long legged pratfalls did not compensate for a lackluster delivery of Sir Andrew Aguecheek's brilliantly foolish lines.

All comes together in the end, however, when Orsino's hard edge tightens the tension of the questionable couplings and the company's inclination to play between the lines becomes an advantage-- adding weight and shading to Shakespeare's precipitous resolution. For once, Malvolio's parting threat to "be revenged on the whole pack of you!" is perfectly in key.