Sunday, October 23, 2011

Theater Review: Twelfth Night -- Westport

Justin Kruger, David Schramm, Jordan Coughtry, Donnetta Lavinia Grays Photo by T. Charles Erickson
'Or What You Will' Seems to Guide This Production
By Lauren Yarger
Viola and her brother Sebastian aren't the only ones who find themselves washed up on the shores of Illyria following a shipwreck. Also caught in the sand scattered about the Westport Country Playhouse stage are a chandelier and some picture frames, with the scene itself framed against an ocean backdrop that could be the view or a large painting on a castle wall topped by moulding. It doesn't take long to figure out that director Mark Lamos, with almost 30 Shakespeare productions under his belt, has gone to great lengths to explore the "Or-What-You-Will" part of the title of his production of Twelfth Night.

At just about every turn, the intention, like what that ubiquitous sand (Andrew Boyce, scenic design)signifies, isn't clear.  What time frame are we in for example? Some of Tilly Grimes costumes, with their Farthingdale-style waists, indicate 16th-century, or maybe late 1700s. Other pants and shirts look like something worn today at Cape Cod. John Gromada's original music is pleasant, but has a modern swing quality when it isn't invoking the goodnight song from The Sound of Music. And then there's a late 19th-century Gramophone playing the music accompanying the singing (Gromada also designs the sound).

So you we just have to say, "Whatever," or "what you will" to the concept and try to enjoy Shakespeare's story of love amidst mistaken identities. Due to some big-time miscasting here, though, even that is hard to do without a lot of questions.

When Viola (Mahira Kakkar) washes up on shore and thinks her brother, Sebastian (Rachid Sabitri), has perished in the storm, she dresses like a man and  renames herself Cesario to survive. Kakkar, unfortunately, is miscast, beyond simply not being able to deliver Shakespeare's verse naturally (whole passages are lost as the meter overtakes the meaning and what we can understand sounds like an English schoolmarm reading from the text). She's pretty, petite and feminine, so never looks like she could be mistaken for a man. A scene Lamos gives her to try to keep up with other males doing pushups isn't necessary to remind us she's really a woman.

Viola finds herself the trusted servant of the ruler of the land, Orsino (Lucas Hall), who asks Cesario to plead his case of love to Olivia (Susan Kelechi Watson) who has refused his attentions so far. Watson's ability with iambic pentameter, unfortunately, is even less than Kakkar's and when other cast members also can't seem to roll the Shakespeare off of their tongues, we say, "alas and forsooth," or just thorow our hands up and say, "what you will."

Viola falls in love with Orsino (though there is no apparent chemistry between the two actors); Olivia in love with Cesario, mistakenly marries Sebastian, who didn't perish in the storm after all (at least Kakkar and Sabitri look enough alike to pull off passing for twins). The plot sounds outlandish, but it can work wonderfully, like it did a couple of seasons ago in the Public Theatre's stellar Central Park production featuring Anne Hathaway. It is allowed to wander here, though, and isn't helped by a new subplot developed to suggest that friend Antonio (Paul Anthony Stewart) has homosexual feelings for Sebastian.

Saving this Westport production are some terrific turns from minor characters. Donetta Lavinia Grays lights up the stage with her portrayal of Maria, a servant to Olivia, who convinces steward Malvalio (David Adkins) that Olivia's affections will be his if he simply smiles a lot and cross garters himself while wearing yellow stockings (the garters here are over the top). She is aided in her deception, and in having Malvolio declared insane, by two clowns, Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch (a fabulous David Schramm) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (an equally engaging Jordan Coughtry), also a suitor of Olivia's. The three clowns doing bird calls to cover their presence while hiding from Malvolio is a hoot and I hope Grays will be starring in something soon. She has amazing stage presence.

Also helping is another servant/clown, Fabian (Justin Kruger), who spends some of his stage time wheeling Olivia's jester, Feste (Darius de Haas), around in a period wheelchair added last minute after de Haas suffered a leg injury in the last dress rehearsal. He lends the lead singing voice to the music and doesn't seem inhibited by the chair, but he seems miscast too: melancholy and exacting, rather than festive and spontaneous.
Twelfth Night runs through Nov. 5 at the Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. For more information or tickets, call 203-227-4177, toll-free at 1-888-927-7529, or visit www.westportplayhouse.org.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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