In Shakespeare’s day, people would describe going to “hear” a play, a sign of the primacy of spoken language in the Elizabethan perception of the world. However, the Curio Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night was certainly a play to be seen.
Set. The theater itself is in a huge, beautiful old church. There’s about a hundred seats curtained off into a black box theater with a massive pipe organ as backdrop. The marble columns and clever use of scaffolding, including a fireman-style pole, created a lovely vertical thrust in a visually striking multi-level set.
Costumes. Of course, the defining visual mark of this production were the striking steampunk costumes. They provided visual interest throughout, and reinforce the martial orientation of the male characters. Goggles, a gilded gear-encrusted headdress, and glowing brooches constantly remind the audience to let go their own inhibitions and embrace the madness of the plays heart. Best of all was the clock face set into Malvolio’s top hat.
Performances. Good performances throughout. Viola was charismatic and competent, even when caught up in forces beyond her control (such as her love for Orsino). Her love was a bit of a stretch to believe as an early scene with Orsino describing his love of Olivia was cut. Olivia’s transition from cold and aloof to smitten was a joy to watch.
The stage business was particularly strong in the scenes of Malvolio reading the forged letter, and the cringing duel of Viola and Sir Andrew. My sides ached from laughter.
What was new? In the previous productions of Twelfth Night I’ve seen, Malvolio has been cast as one of the actors with the most stage presence. His inflated sense of self-importance, and facility for self-deception overshadow the callous, manipulative trick that Sir Toby and company play on him. In the other productions, Malvolio is a pompous, petty tyrant whose own ambitions lead to his humbling. In this production, the actor playing Sir Toby had more stage presence. Not that Malvolio’s actor gave a poor performance, it’s just that Sir Toby’s actor’s performance was so big that–even when he didn’t have any lines–the audience’s attention was drawn to him.
This mixture of talents threw the heart of the play into stark relief for me. The alternate title of Twelfth Night is What You Will, alluding to the antic chaos of the Elizabethan holiday. I’ve already seen how thoroughly this play depicts the faces of frivolity and merry-making, but I hadn’t quite perceived the depth of amorality at the root of it. Sir Toby the constant reveler has Malvolio locked up for the sake of a joke. Sir Toby the smiling back-slapper does his level best to get his buddy Sir Andrew slaughtered to avoid paying off his drinking debts. Sir Toby will let nothing stand in the way of a good time, and that makes him a frightening specter indeed.
I’m so glad I got the chance to see this production. If you have the opportunity, check it out.