PIANO and TWELFTH NIGHT, OR WHAT YOU WILL, Court Theatre. Both these serious comedies, performed in repertory, explore themes of sexual folly and social inequality. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night portrays a muddled romantic quadrangle: Viola, dressed as a young man, loves Count Orsino, who pines for Olivia and sends Viola to woo her on his behalf; Olivia falls for the disguised Viola, and Olivia’s servant Malvolio is tricked into believing that his mistress will love him if he behaves like a madman. Trevor Griffiths’s 1990 Piano, in its U.S. premiere, depicts indolent Russian gentry on a country estate in 1904, flirting and quarreling while beaten-down peasants labor to support them. Platonov, pursued by a frivolous widow and her idealistic daughter-in-law, obsesses about his own sense of worthlessness while other characters discuss the peasantry (scum or the source of Russia’s moral strength?), the aristocracy (inherently superior or good-for-nothing dinosaurs?), and women (is kissing a lady’s hand a tribute or a subtle way of demeaning her?).

Griffiths’s script is based on the 1976 Soviet film Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano, in turn based on Anton Chekhov’s earliest surviving play, Platonov, a melodrama so bad its author didn’t bother to finish it; Griffiths also draws on several of Chekhov’s short stories. But what he intends as homage comes off as pastiche, even unintentional parody. The characters’ breast-beating and emotional paralysis are heavy-handed, as are signals of the revolution to come. Using the Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R.” to jolt the audience at the curtain call seems a tacit admission of the play’s failure to fully engage us.

Directors Charles Newell (Piano) and Karin Coonrod (Twelfth Night) place their excellent actors not only onstage but throughout the auditorium and even in the lobby. The results range from ingenious to gimmicky. Crucial interactions are sometimes difficult to see; too often the actors seem more concerned with where they’re supposed to go than why. Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind and set designers John Culbert (Piano) and Todd Rosenthal (Twelfth Night) create some striking images, evoking cinematic montage in Piano’s second act. But the imaginative design makes Piano’s banality all the more obvious and often interferes with Twelfth Night’s capacity to move as well as amuse us.

–Albert Williams