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Theater Review

A Little 'Night' Madness Would Be Welcome

Director Jack O'Brien's production at the Globe has plaintive, comic quality amid inspired setting.

July 09, 2001|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

SAN DIEGO — Not long ago they changed the name of the Old Globe Theatre to the Globe Theatres, a switch appealing primarily to either obsessive literalists or compulsive pluralists.

But in Southern California the phrases "Old Globe" and "outdoor Shakespeare" are comfortably linked in the public mind. They go together like Stratford and Avon. Or madness and "Twelfth Night."

Leaving the what's-in-a-name question aside: A lovely and mellow "Twelfth Night" opened Saturday at the Globe's Lowell Davies Festival Theatre in Balboa Park. It's a beaut, inspired by the creamy rococo early 18th century paintings of Watteau, as staged by artistic director Jack O'Brien.

Considering his schedule, you think: How did O'Brien work this in? He's fresh off two major Broadway gigs, "The Full Monty" and "The Invention of Love," and he just opened a national "Monty" tour in Toronto.

O'Brien wasn't originally slated to direct this "Twelfth Night," but a scheduling shuffle caused the original director, Robin Phillips, to cancel.

None of this, even an abbreviated rehearsal, has wrinkled the outcome. Not all the roles are memorably inhabited, to be sure. And despite the program notes' focus on the play's aching melancholia, we don't see much along those lines. There is, however, a plaintive comic quality afoot in this Illyria.

Harry Groener's Feste is dressed by costume designer Robert Morgan as Watteau's clown Pierrot, right down to his beribboned slippers. The action is laid in an outdoor garden, a fine, leafy creation of scenic designer James Leonard Joy. He's referencing Watteau's "Pleasures of Love" in this verdant surrounding. The back of the garden is graced by a stream, backed by an arched bridge. Characters are ferried on stage and off, serenely.

This is not the first "Twelfth Night" to fashion such a universe. A century ago, Beerbohm Tree famously turned out a production with similar horticultural and water-based strengths. But O'Brien's design team honors the past without merely replicating it. Lighting designer Pat Collins whips up some sonnet-worthy sunrises, while Mark Bennett's original music gently spans various centuries.

Being "the food of love," as we hear straight off in "Twelfth Night," music plays a large hand in overall effect. O'Brien incorporates Feste into the beginning of the play, giving him an opening number (lyrics by Shakespeare, of course). Groener's a relaxed and winning presence. As Malvolio, the incomparable Paxton Whitehead brings to this Puritan that reliably amazing basso pretensioso voice and bone-dry delayed-reaction line readings. (A caveat: There's something missing from Malvolio's final line--a hint of chilling resolve, perhaps.)

Dakin Matthews relishes his comic business as Sir Toby Belch, and he gets a fine companion in Deborah Taylor's forthright and briskly dispatched Maria.

With such felicitous casting in the comic roles, any "Twelfth Night" might have some trouble establishing the importance of the twins, Viola (Sue Cremin) and Sebastian (Rick Stear), separated during a storm at sea. Cremin and Stear are interesting and charismatic performers, each new to the Globe. Disguised as a man, Viola is charged by the Duke Orsino (Clark Thorell) to woo his unrequited love, Olivia (Margaret Welsh).

These sequences are marked by their calm pacing, even in the face of ever-more-dizzy and unstable emotions. Too calm, at times. Cremin's Viola remains an essentially controlled figure--more suited to Rosalind in "As You Like It," who gets to run her own show. Viola is less in control of her fate and, near the end, fearful of losing her marbles. That mad quality is "Twelfth Night" all over, and the Globe production could use a dash more of it.

Small issues, though, amid such an attractive and sensitively paced evening. There's a freshness to the work, partly due to some new faces, partly due to some extremely valuable familiar ones. Audiences are destined to leave humming the scenery. There seemed to be a lot of happy humming opening night, at least.

Beauty doesn't have to be mere decoration, though. It can mean something--everything, in fact, when your heart's in a state, and the state's in Illyria. With this "Twelfth Night," O'Brien, his design team and cast strive to please without stooping to conquer.

*

"Twelfth Night," the Globe Theatres, Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Tuesdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Aug. 11. $25-$50. (619) 239-2255. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

Sue Cremin: Viola

Harry Groener: Feste

Paxton Whitehead: Malvolio

Dakin Matthews: Sir Toby Belch

Rick Stear: Sebastian

Margaret Welsh: Olivia

Clark Thorell: Orsino

Deborah Taylor: Maria

James Waterston: Sir Andrew Aguecheek

Michael James Reed: Antonio

Michael Karn: Fabian

Brian Ibsen: Valentine

Glen Pannell: Sea Captain

Scott Wood: Curio

Christine Brown: Olivia's attendant

D'Vorah Bailey: Olivia's attendant

Written by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jack O'Brien. Scenic design by James Leonard Joy. Costumes by Robert Morgan. Lighting by Pat Collins. Original music by Mark Bennett. Sound by Chris R. Walker. Dramaturge Dakin Matthews. Fight director Steve Rankin. Stage manager Joel Rosen.

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