European Repertory Company

at Baird Hall, Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ

Two seasons ago British playwright Neil Bartlett directed a truly genderbending Twelfth Night at the Goodman, in which most of the roles, male and female, were played by women. The results were mixed; though the effect of so many actresses in drag was wonderfully disorienting, the production itself quickly slipped into an incoherence so confusing that my companion turned to me at one point and asked, “Is this adaptation based on Shakespeare?” In the show’s many blistering reviews, Bartlett received much of the blame.

But seeing the play in director Dai Parker-Gwilliam’s considerably more conventional European Repertory Company production, I’m not sure the Bard himself doesn’t deserve some of the criticism lobbed at Bartlett. Written as a Christmastime court entertainment for Elizabeth I, Twelfth Night is less a fully functioning drama than it is two half-finished plays–one a funny/depressing meditation on love, the other a grab-ass grab bag of silly shtick and comedy bits–cobbled together into two hours or so of more or less acceptable entertainment.

The main story line is, as they say in Hollywood, As You Like It meets The Comedy of Errors: Viola, shipwrecked on Illyria and separated from her twin brother, Sebastian, disguises herself as a man and immediately becomes embroiled in court politics, specifically in Duke Orsino’s pathetic attempts to win the hand of Countess Olivia. Things go from bad to worse when, in a bit cribbed from The Comedy of Errors (and countless other plays, from Plautus on, involving easily confused twins), Viola’s long-lost brother suddenly reappears.

As in As You Like It, a woman’s impersonation of a man gives Shakespeare lots of room to play with sexual identity–room that he, for whatever reason, chooses not to use in Twelfth Night. In As You Like It Rosalind’s dressing like a man leads to all kinds of dizzyingly complex games. She even gives her lover, who doesn’t recognize her, advice on how to woo Rosalind, going so far as to walk him through a bit of love prattle in which she “plays” herself. But in Twelfth Night, written several years after As You Like It, Shakespeare’s explorations of gender are more restrained. It doesn’t help that both Orsino (whom Viola loves) and Olivia (who loves Viola in her guise as a man) are sexless, passive characters for whom talk seems more natural than action. Disguised as a male courtier, Viola spends most of her time onstage–until nearly the end of the play–going back and forth between Orsino and Olivia, delivering and receiving their long messages to each other.

The closest the play comes to realizing its potential for humor is when, near the end, Olivia marries Viola’s brother, thinking he’s Viola. Unfortunately, in this European Repertory production, the comic impact is diminished by Laura Macknin’s overly dignified if likable performance as Olivia: in her hands, Olivia is too nice to laugh at. (But the fact that we come to care so much about Michael Grant’s noble, melancholic Orsino makes him seem all the worthier of Viola’s love.)

In fact, much of the comedy is muffled in Parker-Gwilliam’s competent, unpretentious, but sadly uninspired production. It doesn’t help that too many members of his non-Equity cast don’t know how to mine Shakespeare’s humor: consider John Nygro’s performance as the court fool, Feste. He’s got marvelous lines “Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage,” and “Better a witty fool than a foolish wit”–but inspires knowing nods when he should get smiles, and smiles when he should get belly laughs. Of all the characters involved in the forced comic subplot–an elaborate scheme to trick Olivia’s puffed-up steward, Malvolio, into thinking his lady is in love with him–only David Franks as Malvolio and Steve Heller as the servant Fabian consistently wring laughs from Shakespeare’s comic setups and wit.

Even more than his comedy, however, Shakespeare’s romance gets short shrift in this cold, emotionally neutral production. When Orsino declares his love for Olivia or she declares hers for Viola, their protestations are just so many words delivered on a stage.

That’s a shame, because at the center of this production is a fine actress. Catherine O’Conner as Viola negotiates the play’s emotional and comic terrain so well, I couldn’t decide what I wished for more: a stronger cast or a better-written play.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tamar Berk.