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When Shakespeare gets freeze-dried

The vocal delivery is pitch-perfect, but not the period staging of 'Twelfth Night.'

October 24, 2003|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

The first surprise in the Shakespeare's Globe production of "Twelfth Night" is that it doesn't take place in the Freud Playhouse at UCLA but rather backstage, in an approximation of an intimate Elizabethan court theater far from the Freud's normal seating area.

Reportedly based on a hall in Oxford, Jenny Tiramani's set consists of a two-story wooden facade with two large doors for the actors' entrances and a long, narrow playing area extending from them toward a garden archway. The audience sits in bleachers on three sides of this area, the musicians perform atop the facade, and the play proceeds with a strangely discomfiting efficiency -- its comic engine still tuned up after 400 years but its imagery and charm unexpectedly freeze-dried.

Arbitrary to a fault, Tim Carroll might seem the perfect director for a play subtitled "What You Will" -- his scattershot 2001 "Macbeth" at Shakespeare's Globe could well have carried the same designation. Like that production, this "Twelfth Night" boasts vivid performances that don't fit into any conceptual trajectory, aimless blocking that fails to reinforce the play's inner rhythm -- or develop one of its own -- and a fatal lack of atmosphere.

Not merely storm-tossed in its plotting, "Twelfth Night" is a play steeped in sea images, but they count for nothing here. Instead, gender issues dominate Carroll's consciousness in this all-male "original practices" version, and its most memorable moments take place between the lines when characters turn suddenly inarticulate -- Orsino and Viola silently discovering their very inconvenient passion for one another while holding hands, for example.

You could argue that all the men cast as women are a decade too old for their roles and that this age inflation keeps the play's comic forays into same-sex romance much too sedate -- less deliberately provocative than they would be with a teenage boy playing Viola, as in Shakespeare's time. Certainly Michael Brown never matches the descriptions of ambiguous adolescence that the character inspires from nearly everyone.

But Brown and his colleagues are so pitch-perfect in their delivery, so adept at conveying every iota of the text's meaning, if not its music, that Shakespeare seems clearer, and closer, than ever. Besides Carroll, the Bard has the benefit of a staff "Master of the Words" (Giles Block) and a "Master of Voice" (Stewart Pearce), so the standard of verse-speaking remains stratospheric, whatever the vagaries of characterization may be.

Those vagaries include a dangerously feral Sir Toby Belch, played with such weaselly ferocity by Bill Stewart that the play's resolution gains a premonition of spousal abuse once you learn that he's married Maria (Peter Shorey).

Indeed, in the final scene, neither the sweet reunion of Viola and Sebastian (Brown and Rhys Meredith) nor the happy reordering of all the romantic entanglements, outweighs the nastiness of the Toby/Maria misalliance and the humiliation of Malvolio.

There's a final dance reassuring us that we've been watching a comedy, but Carroll has been unable to keep its components in balance. The darker elements have run away with it and everything else comes to seem mere formula.

Early on, the drunken Falstaffian revels are so off-putting that you're ready to recommend a 12-step detox program long before Malvolio intervenes. Moreover, Timothy Walker makes him such an innocent, lovable dreamer that the plot against him seems cruelly disproportionate to any provocation.

When, after Malvolio's disgrace, Feste (Peter Hamilton Dyer) drops his smug little put-down about the whirligig of time bringing in his revenges, you don't smile in assent and happily watch a cold, Puritan windbag storm out of the play. Rather you miss Walker's endearing faith in his own future and wait impatiently for the much-deserved sequel: "Thirteenth Night" (Malvolio Strikes Back)."

However, no performance proves more enjoyable or problematic than Mark Rylance's Olivia. In stark white makeup that makes him look neither male nor female, the 43-year-old Shakespeare's Globe artistic director never seems alluring enough in any psycho-sexual context to either obsess the lovesick Orsino (Liam Brennan) or inspire Sebastian to marriage at first sight. Impressively stylized in voice and motion, yes. Able to turn a Shakespearean phrase or even a single vowel to delicious comic effect, absolutely. But not credibly part of the world of this play.

If "Twelfth Night" documents the journey toward self-knowledge of characters mired in excessive, uncomprehending behavior, even a performance that is all excess, all exquisite and inherently unbelievable effects, ought to have some sort of arc or through line. But after more than three hours, Rylance's Olivia remains as directionless as this whole elaborate venture in UCLA Live's International Theatre Festival. "What You Will" it undeniably is, but not necessarily as you like it.


'Twelfth Night (Or What You Will)'


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