A program note for the Folger Theatre’s current production of “Twelfth Night” points out that this is the last of Shakespeare’s “romantic” or “happy” comedies, and that those that followed, like “Measure for Measure” and “All’s Well That Ends Well” are less innocent and more complicated. (To those I would add “Cymbeline,” “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest.”) “Twelfth Night” is a lighthearted exploration of the various kinds of love: the filial love of Viola and Sebastian, the unrequited love of Orsino for Olivia, the mistaken love of Olivia for Cesario, the true love of Viola/Cesario for Orsino, the comradely love of Antonio for Sebastian, the carnal love of Maria for Sir Toby, and the trumped up love of Malvolio for Olivia. It is one of my favorite plays of Shakespeare. And yet…
Already some of the complications of the later romantic comedies are creeping in with the storyline of Malvolio, robbing it of its innocence, and I think that makes this play the turning point towards his later, darker comedies. Malvolio, it is true, is a pompous, self-righteous kill-joy with airs above his station, but for me the joke of his being put in his place is taken too far, and that always leaves me with a pang that casts a slight shadow over the pure enchantment of the ending. In the Folger production, Malvolio is played by the Stratford-upon-Avon born actor, Richard Sheridan Willis. With his baleful eyes, his impossibly crimped hair and rigidly mincing walk he plays him to perfection, getting every ounce out of exaggerated fastidiousness of the character. The letter scene is sheer delicious delight. By contrast, Willis brings an aching poignancy to Malvolio’s downfall at the end.
I have often raved about the intensely creative and inventive productions in the intimate Folger Theatre, and this one is right up there with the very best of them. Robert Richmond has set it in the early 1900’s – interestingly, I have seen a couple of other productions of “Twelfth Night” set around that period; the play seems to lend itself to that era of pre-war grace. (In one such production I saw Malvolio take out his pocket watch and correct the time on the sundial!) It is Viola’s play, and Emily Trask holds it together beautifully. William Vaughan, who is so new on the scene that he is not yet a member of Actors’ Equity, is integrated into the play much more than Sebastian usually is, which helps to build the believability of their twinship. Michael Brusasco’s Orsino is astoundingly handsome (he’s played Mr. Darcy in a couple of productions of “Pride and Prejudice” and one can see why!) and Olivia (played by Rachel Pickup, who is the daughter of the English actor, Ronald Pickup) is ethereally beautiful in every way. It hardly seems fair to single out particular actors, though, because it is the wonderful ensemble work that makes the production so successful – that and the ingenious use of music. Viola plays the cello surprisingly, Feste (Louis Butelli) plays ukulele, and Joshua Morgan, who plays Valentine and is also billed the music director, is a remarkably talented pianist, performing everything from Satie and Debussy to part of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and even some ragtime. The music, as is often the case with Folger productions, is integral, and lifts the play to a whole other level, conjuring up the era and the lightness – as well as the darkness – of the play.
DEBUSSY, fun, music, satie, Shakespeare, theater