Goodman Theatre

The great comedienne Anna Russell used to do a monologue about the chairwoman of a ladies’ club welcoming a flock of culture vultures to a concert. “Our organization stands for the better things in art,” Russell hooted, “not expecting either reward or enjoyment. I think Shakespeare summed it up so beautifully: . . . ‘If music be the food of love, play on.’ [Pause.] He didn’t say on what, but I think it’s a mah-velous idea.”

In his Goodman Theatre staging of Twelfth Night (from which the epigram comes), British director Neil Bartlett exhibits only a tad less misunderstanding of Shakespeare than Russell’s dithery doyenne. Haphazardly conceived and clumsily executed, Bartlett’s production further confuses a play already riddled with confusion; but where the script’s confusion is provocative, Bartlett’s is just confused.

Set in the remote and exotic country of Illyria, known in Shakespeare’s time as a dangerous den of piracy, Twelfth Night concerns a pair of strangers in a strange land. Viola, shipwrecked in Illyria by a storm, thinks that her twin brother Sebastian has been killed; he presumes the same of her. Dressing herself as a boy, the rather reckless Viola soon becomes a protege of Duke Orsino, who sends her to plead his case to the lady Olivia. Olivia falls for the cross-dressed Viola, and Viola finds herself falling for Orsino. Meanwhile, Olivia’s house steward Malvolio, a pretentious puritan, is made to think that Olivia has fallen for him–a prank invented by the bawdy housemaid Maria, Olivia’s drunkard cousin Sir Toby Belch, and Belch’s buddy Sir Andrew Aguecheek–and sets about wooing her in so ludicrous a way that he’s committed to a madhouse. The arrival of Sebastian–a look-alike for the male-impersonating Viola–further muddies the swamp of disguises and deceptions.

Pointing to the Elizabethan practice of casting boys in female roles, Bartlett has cast women as almost all the Illyrian characters; two teenage boys play the twins Viola and Sebastian; and a man is cast as Feste, the jester and troubadour who seems to have one foot in Orsino’s court and the other in Olivia’s household. That all the actresses are white and the three men are black can hardly be a coincidence–especially since Bartlett exploits the cheapest and most banal racial stereotypes. He has the fool Feste (the superb operatic baritone George Merritt) sing generic blues and jazz, and later indulge in a third-rate Reverend Ike routine, while Viola and Sebastian (Nikkieli Lewis and William Jones, two talented but not-ready-for-prime-time high schoolers) express their joy at being reunited in a minstrel-show version of a break dance.

At least the racial casting seems to have a rationale, retrograde though it is. But having women play the male roles seems arbitrary and not particularly incisive; it dulls rather than sharpens the edge of sexual ambiguity that cuts through the play–especially since, by casting boys as the twins, Bartlett has safely ensured that any romantic contact onstage always takes place between actors of the opposite sex (even though the sexes they portray are opposite from their own).

The cross-gender casting has another potential justification: to showcase actresses who don’t get much opportunity to work given Chicago theater’s tendency to produce male-dominated plays. The call went out for “ballsy” women when Twelfth Night was hiring, and the production certainly features some interesting female talent. Shannon Cochran, Suzanne Petri, and Peggy Roeder are well known for reliably professional work at mainstream theaters like Goodman, Northlight, and Steppenwolf; Josette DiCarlo, Paula Killen, Jeanette Schwaba, Lynn Baber, and Robin Baber have contributed some of the most quirkily entertaining performances in recent off-off-Loop shows; and Lola Pashalinski, making her Chicago debut here, is a mainstay of cutting-edge New York theaters such as the Ridiculous Theatrical Company and Mabou Mines.

What a pity that the actresses–and the audience–are so poorly served. Bartlett writes a good program note, but he and his movement director, Leah Hausman, have utterly failed to connect with the cast’s sexual and psychic energies, not to mention the text’s extraordinarily sensual union of sound and meaning. (Nicolas Bloomfield’s music, meanwhile, completely obscures the song lyrics so crucial to this dark romantic comedy.) Petri, as the priggish Malvolio, comes off best, because her stylized tension works with the character’s repressions; but even she ultimately fails to make Malvolio’s excessive punishment register emotionally with herself or the viewers (like Shylock, Malvolio is a bad guy whose mistreatment eventually makes him sympathetic). The rest of the show is joyless and dreary, except for a few modern interpolations (misquotes from All About Eve and Casablanca, recession jokes, a stream of raunchy insults from Robin Baber’s grotesque Maria) whose sheer shock value prompts pockets of laughter from an audience eager–desperate –for a little reward and enjoyment.

Though the efforts of Bartlett, Hausman, and Bloomfield–collaborators in the London performance company Gloria–fail, the work of designers Richard Hudson and Scott Zielinski is the evening’s one notable success. Hudson’s set, for which Bartlett presumably must share credit, promises the insightful Twelfth Night that is never delivered: with its two raked playing areas arching in the middle and overlapping each other, it looks like a once-unified room rent asunder by an earthquake; a revolving glass door in the middle creates a makeshift entry through which people try to establish at least fleeting contact. Zielinski lights the set in sharply contrasting shades–red for Orsino’s territory on the left side of the stage and green for Olivia’s on the right–suggesting the themes of duality that permeate the script. The set also helps Bartlett create some amusing tableaux: Orsino’s court is an Edwardian men’s club whose members lounge with brandy snifters and newspapers, while Olivia’s side of the stage is a gloom-shrouded sitting room inhabited by black-veiled mourners waiting for Olivia to embrace the love that’s offered. But a few nice visual touches can’t salvage a sinking ship.

“I didn’t know Shakespeare was this hard,” gasps Robin Baber’s Maria at one point, after a strenuously unfunny farcical sequence. Believe me, Robin, it doesn’t have to be.