By Bob Shuman
Maria Aitken takes the edge off overwrought Summer Shakespeare with a droll, whimsical Twelfth Night from the Acting Co. in a co-production with Delaware’s Resident Ensemble Players (REP), now playing until May 27, at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn (an essential theatrical destination, which seems to transfigure for each new presentation). Her light surrealism sets Illyria in the Thirties, maybe in California, probably not on the Adriatic and far away from traditional England or Trump’s America. What matters to her is the hair, the wigs (which go uncredited): bouffants, bobs, punk dreadlocks, pageboys, coiffures piled high and on the verge of Versailles. The costume designer, Candice Donnelly, provides veils, tams, netting and curlers, party hats, berets, and kerchiefs; variegated livery, period golf wear, ruffles at the neck, asymmetrical gowns, and old-fashioned black swimsuits–she even makes an allowance for nothing at all. Some might surmise that to dwell on costumes is another way of saying that there isn’t much going for the show, but here, Shakespeare is what happens when the audience is looking the other way.
The play has been called the finest of the bard’s comedies, and Aitken’s may be one director who can actually prove that, by insisting on lucidity–she does not clutter her stage, for example, for all her satirical idiosyncrasies, and the design, by Lee Savage, is white and clear, a little beat up, maybe a deck on a ship or the villa of a Hollywood star, a mystical swirl of eternity at the apex. The backdrop, virtually a map, is as vivid and impersonal as the screensaver of a Dell computer. As Viola, the page searching for her lost brother after a shipwreck, Susanna Stahlmann reminds of a young Isabella Rossellini—she’s giving a classic portrait, placing a knee up on a bench to intimidate or intimate virility or putting hands on hips to imitate manliness. At the other extreme is Michael Gotch, as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a role typically seen as secondary—however, in this Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole incarnation, he is the one through which the audience realizes it can laugh. Gotch is thin and inventive, always in the moment, on, maybe like a Robin Williams. Aitken and her cast are looking at what’s really comic in a Shakespeare comedy, such a Sir Tobey Belch (Lee E. Ernst) line: “She’s a beagle,” insulting and whacked out at the same time.
The simplicity of the textual structure is allowed to be contemplated, without unnecessary stress from too much music, ham acting, and societal comment. The director’s specific detail in scene work, one including a fake pheasant, for instance, highlights the lunacy. By the end of the evening, she will have brought in the kazoos and ukuleles, even guns and terrorists; the cold white scenic design, sometimes like reflective tiles, with bright lighting, by Philip S. Rosenberg, can project fissures of red and blue. Shakespearean comedy is not often seen so unconventionally, with secrets of the interpretation, known only to the auteur, kept intact, yet a love of absurd eccentricity and lyricism on the verge of slapstick are apparent; very dry, of course. Elizabeth Heflin, as Olivia, seems Californian, an American with a pioneering spirit–a self-assured woman who might roll the dice for love in the city of angels or star in a silent-era two-reeler. Stephen Pelinski may be the one Malvolio who has found a way to recite his speeches without eliciting impatience. Others in the cast are also actors to take note of, if they are not known to readers already: Kate Forbes, John Skelley, Michael Stewart Allen, Hassan El-Amin, Mathew Greer, Mic Matarrese, Antoinette Robinson, Joshua David Robinson, and Mickey Theis. They add credence to the idea that the best way to enjoy Shakespeare is to not think about him . . . or Donald Trump . . . or the number 1 train on weekends . . . or the rain.
Copyright © 2018 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
Photos: The New York Times; University of Delaware. All rights reserved.
Directed by Maria Aitken
Visit The Polonsky Shakespeare Center:
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY, 11217
About The Acting Company
Founded in 1972 by John Houseman and Margot Harley, The Acting Company (Ian Belknap, Artistic Director; Elisa Spencer-Kaplan, Executive Director) is “the major touring classical theater in the United States” (The New York Times) and the only professional repertory company dedicated to the development of classical actors. The Company has reached 4 million people in 48 states and 10 foreign countries with its productions and education programs, and has helped to launch the careers of some 400 actors, including Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone, Rainn Wilson, Jesse L. Martin, Keith David, Frances Conroy, David Ogden Stiers, Harriet Harris, David Schramm, Jeffrey Wright and Hamish Linklater. Over a dozen commissioned new works and adaptations include plays by Lynn Nottage, Tony Kushner, John Guare, David Mamet, Beth Henley, Rebecca Gilman, Maria Irene Fornes, William Finn, Ntozake Shange, and more. The Company received a special Tony Honor for Excellence in Theater in 2003 for its contributions to the American theater.
About Resident Ensemble Players
The Resident Ensemble Players (REP) is a professional theatre company located at the University of Delaware, headed by Producing Artistic Director Sanford (Sandy) Robbins. The REP offers frequent productions of outstanding classic, modern and contemporary plays performed in a wide variety of styles that celebrate and demonstrate the range and breadth of its resident acting company. The REP is committed to create future audiences for live theatre by offering its productions at low prices that enable and encourage the attendance of everyone in the region, regardless of income.
Press: Sam Parrott, Blake Zidell & Associates