Twelfth Night’s Jazzy Background Doesn’t Hit All the Right Notes

Written by Jennifer Kramer
April 01, 2012

Twelfth Night
by William Shakespeare
The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre
March 23 – May 20, 2012

The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater’s production of Twelfth Night boasts an impressive and intriguing set of inspirations, including the culture of the Jazz age, the paintings of Magritte, and the music of the Academy Award-nominated The Triplets of Belleville. Despite this pedigree, however, director Carmen Khan’s vision fails to capitalize on the potential of its antecedents, resulting in a solid but sadly uninspiring production.

The most successful execution of Khan’s vision comes courtesy of set designer Lisi Stoessel. The simple yet elegant design recalls the less esoteric seaside landscapes of Magritte as well as the marine motifs that occur throughout the text. Varnished floorboards like the deck of a ship stretch back to a single rail occasionally framed by sheer white curtains; a white muslin cyclorama backs the set, amplifying the lighting changes for each scene. Carefully chosen period props, carried on and off by the players, complement the action with a minimalist grace. The set reflects a whimsy and subtlety that is generally missing from the rest of the production’s elements.

Vickie Esposito’s costume design seems intended to produce a similar sense, but by comparison fails to deliver. For the most part, the 1930s theme offers a low-key background to the action of the play, but it is marred by the small details: in the intimate seating of the theater, every wrinkle in the character’s linen suits is visible, as are Maria’s limp hair-net and distinctly non-period sneakers, and the poor fit of Olivia’s mourning dress. While Sir Toby’s multitudinous pockets do allow him to secret away an impressive array of bottles to support his drinking problem, his inexplicable explorer outfit makes him visually distinct at the price of some distraction. Some costuming choices more successfully mesh with the production’s intended tone, including Feste’s rainbow-hued shirts and socks that recall the whimsically-deployed umbrellas, and Malvolio’s yellow stockings, sock garters, and matching old-timey bathing costume (especially when paired with his butler’s coat and bow-tie in a hilariously counterintuitive attempt to regain his dignity). However, the overall effect falls short of achieving a truly meaningful contribution to the intended interpretation.

Khan cites The Triplets of Belleville as a major influence; Fabian Obispo’s score deftly captures the wit and vitality of early French jazz, and the songs are admirably performed by Lesley Berkowitz and the rest of the cast, but ultimately the music’s use is disappointingly mundane, lacking spontaneity and improvisational spirit. Khan mainly features the music when and only when one expects it: during scene breaks and as accompaniment for the songs called for in the text. This lack of innovation is compounded by technical difficulties, including erratic volume control and, on at least one occasion, the unceremonious termination of a song mid-phrase. These flaws contribute to a perception of the music as an afterthought, instead of an essential feature of the production.

Though Khan elicits consistently strong performances from the cast, the broadness of the acting style detracts from the effectiveness of the play: the deliberately over-the-top portrayals do not always appear to be a natural fit with the actors’ emotional and comedic instincts. This broadness at its worst instead seems to act like the theatrical version of a laugh track, informing the audience of the play’s pathos or hilarity instead of generating it organically. However, several actors do manage to own this stylization, and it is perhaps not coincidental that their characters are already written as somewhat larger-than-life. Lesley Berkowitz’s Feste augments a fully natural-seeming absurdity with an almost otherworldly air that sets her Fool apart from the other characters’ mere foolishness. Meanwhile, Jered McLenigan is at his best when he pushes Orsino’s lovesick lamentation to its absolute limit, throwing tantrums over Olivia’s rejections while flopping all over Victoria Rose Benito’s petrified Viola like a limpet with no sense of personal space. Rob Kahn, however, steals the show as Malvolio, putting his exquisite comic timing to good use by imbuing all the put-downs and pratfalls with a hilariously overbearing and misapplied dignity, and making Malvolio surprisingly sympathetic even as he suffers his richly-deserved comeuppance.

The purpose of this broad acting style eventually becomes clear, as Khan utilizes the light-hearted tone to help resolve the uncertainty of the play’s finale and enable almost the closest one can get to an uncomplicated happy ending for Twelfth Night. Much of the gender ambiguity has been breezily glossed over, so Olivia’s attachment to “Cesario” being initially based on an electric physical attraction and Viola’s love for Orsino being impeded by her role as his manservant are both apparently resolved by producing an identical twin of the proper gender. This felicitous conclusion is not without a price, however: avoiding any complex examination of the play’s questioning of gender roles means that Viola’s reappearance at the end in her “woman’s weeds” feels more like a surrender to cultural norms than a character reclaiming her identity, for example. The most successful resolution is for Malvolio, who has been amusingly but not gratuitously abused in the course of the play; he storms off after promising revenge, but reappears with a drinks cart during the show’s closing song, still sporting his butler’s coat, bathing costume, and yellow cross-gartered stockings. His willingness to resume his previous role implies that his sense of dignity is bruised but unbroken – as is, apparently, his lack of self-awareness of his innate hilarity. Khan’s denouement is straightforward but not superficial, attempting to resolve several problematic aspects of the text by capitalizing on artistic choices carefully signaled throughout the production.

The success of the conclusion, unfortunately, is built on creative decisions that fail to be fully realized for much of the play. The potential of the cast and artistic design seems greater than the final production – a respectable and at times very entertaining production, but ultimately slight in comparison to the greatness promised by its influences. Copyright © 2014 by Visit for details.