No Great Shakes

As usual, Bernard Shaw said it best: Producers and directors believe that "Shakespeare's greatness, being uncommon, ought not to be interpreted according to the dictates of common sense." Gauged by this misunderstanding, the century between Shaw's targets and Brian Kulick's production of Twelfth Night has been astonishingly brief. Some intelligence, some talent, and some charm are on view in Twelfth Night, but common sense seems very far off. As the production makes clear, Kulick understands perfectly well what the play means and how its structure operates. The only thing he doesn't understand is how it functions in the theater; for all its noise and high jinks and playing to the gallery, his is a thoroughly academic approach. And nothing can rob Shakespeare of his life in the theater, or of his poetry, faster than an academic sensibility; it should probably be made a crime to teach him at all, except as part of an actor-training course.

The Illyria of Kulick's Twelfth Night, designed by Walt Spangler, is a sprawling, ocean-blue platform, ramped, curving, and hilly, that suggests an enormous amusement park ride. At its far left is a towering blue chute down which the characters slide when in the grip of passion, shipwreck, or alcohol. Aside from suggesting an omnipresent blueness of sky and sea, the set doesn't convey anything that would help any audience member locate Twelfth Night—neither narratively, intellectually, or spiritually—but it has at least the merit of not resembling anything else. Kulick gets additional levels for his playing space by littering it with travelers' trunks, one of which, "trapped" with a false bottom, is used for Sir Andrew's entrance and Malvolio's imprisonment, and with clumps of rosebushes for the clowns to hide behind when they gull Malvolio.

None of this is particularly harmful. Shakespeare didn't write for a stage that gave literal pictures of places, and Illyria, a meaninglessly exotic name to the bulk of his audience, could as easily be a baggage-littered rose garden in Playland as anyplace else. On the other hand, what kept Shakespeare's theater grounded and stable was that its fixed elements functioned according to a fixed set of conventions from play to play; his texts were points on a theatrical continuum, not individual "properties" isolated in their own weirdness. Making Twelfth Night seem outré and noisy is hardly the worst or the newest crime in the history of Shakespeare staging, but in taking away the play's normalness, it also takes away some of its deeper individuality. Self-consciously outré objects tend to blur into one another, like people who wear funny hats; ignoring the hats and getting to know the people is more likely to produce lasting relationships.

Jimmy Smits (Orsino) and Julia Stiles (Viola): as somebody likes it
photo: Michal Daniel
Jimmy Smits (Orsino) and Julia Stiles (Viola): as somebody likes it

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Twelfth Night, Or What You Will
By William Shakespeare
Delacorte Theatre, Central Park
212-861-7277

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And that is, to some degree, the moral of Twelfth Night. Viola, mourning the brother she thinks drowned, disguises herself as a boy and enters Duke Orsino's service to be near Olivia, also mourning a dead brother. But all appearances turn out to be false: Viola's brother is not dead; Olivia's mourning is merely a way to ward off Orsino's unwanted attentions while she sorts out her emotional confusion. Orsino's passion is simply a man's desire for what he can't have. When they get to know each other, Viola falls in love with Orsino and Olivia—in a female version of Orsino's impulse—with her. To even out the odd numbers (and genders), Shakespeare splits Viola in half by bringing on her brother Sebastian. And to remind his audience that love extends beyond the usual church-sanctioned combinations, he invents a heroic, self-sacrificing figure, Sebastian's rescuer Antonio, whose love is of the unmarriageable kind, except in Vermont.

Because Shakespeare's audience had a short (though not MTV-short) attention span, he always worked with two parallel plots, one high and one low. This was standard Elizabethan practice; his brilliance lay in his ability to link the two thematically and crisscross them dramaturgically. The confusion in Olivia's heart is paralleled by the confusion in her house. As in the main plot, the issue is between two men who don't really love Olivia: Malvolio, who only loves himself, wants her because, like Orsino, he can't have her, while Sir Andrew, as foolish as "Caesario" is unreal, can hardly be called a man at all. Standing in for Olivia herself in this plot, with understandable inadequacy, are the two other people who will marry in the course of the action, Sir Toby and Maria. And where Orsino has two courtiers, Valentine and Curio, Olivia has a professional fool (as distinguished from the 24-7 amateur kind represented by Sir Andrew), Feste, and a sort of associate trickster to Sir Toby, Fabian. The symmetry of the structure, though not easy to make out against the chaos and ragtag of the production, is fairly dazzling.

Shakespeare's art is never rigid. Symmetry is always set off in two ways, by human individuality and by poetry. The three elements together, you might say, make up the music of the Shakespearean stage—a concept extremely important to Twelfth Night, which opens with the act of listening to music and closes with a song. (Another key significator is the affirmation, in the opening speech, that you can't duplicate the effect of a musical performance by repeating it: Once it's done, it's over. " 'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.") You can tell almost everything about a director's musical sense by his handling of Twelfth Night's opening speech. If I didn't know better in reality, on the basis of the current production I'd have to infer that Brian Kulick is tone-deaf. Contemporary directors are always in a hurry to start a play, as Shakespeare's audience may well have been; that's precisely why he opened this one with what amounts to a listening session. Orsino isn't going anywhere: A hereditary aristocrat whom others serve, all he has to do is send another love note to Olivia and rack up another rejection. He has plenty of time to brood over the sound of tunes with a dying fall.

Not, however, if he's the kind of Orsino portrayed at the Delacorte by Jimmy Smits. Casting, today, is the swampiest crossroads in the New York theater, where directorial academicism meets producerial misguidance. The premise is that the audiences won't go to a play—even for free outdoors in summer—unless its cast is full of TV and film "names." The practice has been applied to more recent American classics and contemporary plays as well as to Shakespeare, and the New York Shakespeare Festival is by no means the only culprit. Yes, of course stars sell tickets, but the Delacorte has no tickets to sell, and "names" aren't the same thing as stars. Cast in a role for which they lack the training, experience, or sympathy, they're merely as big a drag on the event as any other miscast actor. Smits is a forceful and strong-voiced performer who, in the right role, would probably be effective. If you believe that a cultivated, love-besotted Duke is the same thing as a self-made streetwise rich guy given to brutish bullying, then you'll think him a very good Orsino.

As in any category of actors, not every "name" is a bad match for the role. Kristen Johnston, for instance, who carries around the persona of a loud vulgar gal, makes a very good loud vulgar Maria. But here you sometimes get a double trap. Only those who've seen other productions know that Maria doesn't have to be loud and vulgar—Charlayne Woodard proved that at the Delacorte some time ago—and only those who saw Johnston's stage work in productions like The Lights, before she was kidnapped by the space aliens who perpetrate American TV, know that she has other strings to her bow. When cast solely for her persona, she becomes trapped in it.

And all this is antithetical to Shakespeare's own approach: Writing for a permanent company, he tailored roles both to fit and to challenge artists whose abilities he knew. Burbage played all his leads, and Armin (at the time of Twelfth Night) all his clowns, but each hero or clown is a different person, and makes different demands on the actor. If you can't see the person, you are not seeing the play; and if the person you see doesn't match the text you hear, the director is at fault.

Once the junk and eccentricity are cleared away, Kulick's fault rate is surprisingly low. His mistakes start with Duncan Sheik's music, which is, pretty much, the worst and least memorable music ever composed for Twelfth Night. Michael Potts, as Feste, has been directed to sing them unattractively and play the role in a permanent state of ire. Julia Stiles's Viola is a non-presence, proving again that movies have nothing to do with acting. Against these lapses, we get Kathryn Meisle's scattered but substantial Olivia; an intermittently funny, though hideously overdone, set of comic routines from Oliver Platt and Michael Stuhlbarg as Toby and Andrew; a lively Fabian from Kevin Isola; and a haughty, scary Malvolio from Christopher Lloyd. (Lloyd, though, illustrates another part of the moral: Hollywood destroys actors' voices.) Once the play has started to work, the experience is garish—though Miguel Angel Huidor's handsome late-Victorian costumes certainly aren't—but not painful. It says something, though, that the best performance the night I attended was given by a late replacement, David Harbour, as Antonio. He even made it down the slide standing up. I wish I could say that the play had done the same.

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