Fort Worth — “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” It’s easy to fall down a literary black hole when trying to attribute this quote. Leading suspects include the great 19th-century English actor Edmund Kean, George Bernard Shaw, Groucho Marx, Edmund Gwenn (better known as Santa Claus from the original Miracle on 34th Street), Oscar Wilde, and even William Shakespeare himself on occasion. Despite its dubious sourcing, the aphorism persists, presumably because it feels undeniably true — comedy IS hard, and Shakespeare’s comedies are harder still. With its production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (produced as part of its “Lost at Sea!” Festival, along with The Tempest — a clever conceit), the Stolen Shakespeare Guild has tackled one of the Bard’s most deceptively challenging works, with uneven success.
Twelfth Night, or What You Will (the only one of Shakespeare’s plays to retain a subtitle when first published) can be a beast of a script to get to the stage. The plot is, at times, a paper-thin collection of coincidences, happy accidents, and sheer luck, with a whiff of soap opera. A pair of twins are shipwrecked near a strange shore, both believing the other has most likely drowned. The sister, Viola, bereft and entirely alone in the world without her brother, decides that to protect herself in this new land, she’ll dress as a man and seek employment with a local nobleman, the lovesick Duke Orsino. Orsino pines for the fair Olivia, another member of the local nobility, herself sunk in perpetual mourning for her dead brother. Olivia rejects any overtures of love, at least until the Duke’s new servant “Cesario” (Viola in disguise) comes to plead her master’s case, whereupon Olivia falls madly in love with Cesario.
Meanwhile, Viola’s twin brother Sebastian, who (shocker!) has not drowned (saved by the efforts of a kindly pirate), eventually wends his way to the same region, unaware that his sister is alive and wearing pants. Add a drunken uncle, a foppish knight, a fool who’s anything but, and a puritanical steward. Shake well, and enjoy.
Shakespeare’s language, of course, is the real star of Twelfth Night. For all its contrivances, the play contains some of Shakespeare’s funniest work, and some of his most poignant. In the right hands this play can be at turns lyrical, ethereal and bawdy — the result being a topsy-turvy world where up is down, servants are the real masters, fools speak the most sense, and love has very little to do with gender. The play’s shifts in tone and many ambiguities offer intriguing opportunities for the modern director.
It’s disappointing, then, that this production, directed by husband-and-wife team Lauren and Jason Morgan, has so thoroughly flattened out the piece. Bowing, perhaps, to the modern attention span, the production is a brisk two hours, and much of the nuance and poetry of the play is lost. Among the casualties from such a thorough paring-down of the script are the play’s songs (mostly belonging to the fool, Feste), which are not only beautiful in and of themselves, but are also vital in creating the dreamlike mood of the play’s love story—and in contrasting that storyline with the farcical goings-on of Sir (here “Dame”) Toby Belch and his ilk. Even the comic subplot falls somewhat flat; the actors, while game, especially for the physical comedy of their scenes, have a tenuous grasp on the play’s language (a common problem throughout much of the production), so most of the verbal repartee is missed. The result is a certain sense of sameness from scene to scene, with little contrast between the farce and the more serious segments; the highs are never that high, nor are the lows particularly low.
The gender-blind casting of some of the lesser roles, which might have served to play into the script’s inherent gender fluidity, instead serves to create problems. While flipping Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s uncle, and Maria, her maid, into Dame Toby and Mario, maintains their relationship dynamic to some degree, the choice to change the pirate Antonio — who saves Viola’s twin brother — into Antonia (while affectingly played by the actress, Stolen Shakespeare Guild choreographer and mainstay Karen Matheny) smooths out the far more interesting overtones of male Antonio’s passion for Sebastian. This leaves the audience with a more conventional relationship — that Antonia is in possibly unrequited, and very much heterosexual, love with Sebastian. The change also leaves Sebastian looking like, at least to this audience, a bit of a jerk by the end of the play — abandoning the woman who saved his life and with whom he had kept company “both day and night” for three months prior.
The play’s eternal stumbling block —the plot involving Olivia’s puritanical steward, Malvolio, brought low by his own pride and the machinations of Dame Toby and Mario — poses its usual challenges. Though Blair Mitchell handles the character’s comic moments in the play well, his initial scenes fail to blow up the character’s failings enough to motivate the other characters’ desire to puncture his pride and pomposity. As such, all that follows feels somewhat flat and perfunctory.
Overall the production suffers from an overly condensed script, an overarching failure to grasp Shakespeare’s language, and the lack of a firm guiding hand in making creative choices. In the end, this production commits the cardinal sin for any Shakespearean play: it’s dull. As a group with “Shakespeare” in its name, a return to the fundamentals may be called for.
» Twelfth Night continues in the Lost at Sea festival, with performances at 8 p.m. March 3 and 2 p.m. March 4. The Tempest, which TheaterJones will be unable to review, has final performances at 8 p.m. March 2 and 2 p.m. March 3.