Among the ruins of an overgrown, wisteria-bedecked glade, Shakespeare's lovers, clowns and clownish lovers gambol with elegance rather than irreverence. That's a bit peculiar, since Twelfth Nightis a Shakespearean comedy full of mistaken identities, cross-dressing and revenge plots. Then again, it's also one of Shakespeare's more melancholy comedies, so who needs the hijinks?
As played out on James Leonard Joy's painting-made-real set (more on this in a minute), scarcely a moment of director Jack O'Brien's spectacle-rich production feels hurried or urgent. Not even the mixed-up passions of Viola (played by Sue Cremin), our heroine in male drag, who pines for Duke Orsino (Clarke Thorell), who digs Olivia (Margaret Welsh), who falls for—oops!—Viola in disguise. Even the revenge plot upon aspiring steward Malvolio (Paxton Whitehead) engineered by Sir Toby Belch (Dakin Matthews), Maria (Deborah Taylor) and Feste (Harry Groener) feels dignified rather than madcap.
In O'Brien's hands, the landscape seems a bit too genteel for pratfalls or overemoting. Nor is the director trying to drown us in sadness, despite the death hanging over the stage. Love, loss, death and foolery. We get the idea.
Certainly Thorell's Orsino has got it bad for Olivia, and yes, Crum's plucky Viola puts him in his place when Orsino starts sounding off about a woman's inability to match a man's capacity for love (oh, if he only knew!). But these characters come across as love-eager rather than lovesick.
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Among the strong cast, there are a couple of standouts. Dressed in a bobbed wig and just-off-the-Mayflower regalia (costumes by Robert Morgan), Whitehead (of Grey Poupon mustard-hawking fame) takes on Malvolio, a role he was born to play. Groener's a low-key Feste, a strong singer who always seems to have a quartet of musicians at the ready.
But the real star of this production may be the aforementioned set. The players emerge from the ruins, from the trees, even via waterway aboard a convenient gondola. There are no buildings, no interiors in this Illyria (a dreamy site inspired by the paintings of Jean Antoine Watteau)—and no restraints. There's only scenic beauty and the capacity for occasional mixups.
In the past 14 months, O'Brien has bounded from the crowd-pleasing musicalization of The Full Monty to Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love (both Tony Award nominees) and now the realm of the Bard. Where, if this production is any indication, he is very much at home.
Twelfth Night at San Diego Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego, (619) 239-2255. Tues.-Sun., 8 p.m. Through Aug. 11. $25-$50.