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Vol. LXIII, No. 12
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
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Everything’s Coming Up Roses in Classic Shakespeare Comedy; McCarter’s “12th Night” Blossoms With Music, Spectacle, Romance

Donald Gilpin

Top Ten Reasons why you should see Rebecca Taichman’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, currently at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre:

  1. Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s crowning achievements, perhaps his greatest comedy. Written in 1601, after his other major comedies, just after Hamlet and just before the other great tragedies, this romantic tale of Viola and her twin brother Sebastian shipwrecked and separated in the kingdom of Illyria, is brilliant.
  2. Ms. Taichman, who has brought and restaged this award-winning production from The Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC, introduces audiences to new perspectives on the play that even the most seasoned of Shakespeare aficionados will find surprising, provocative, and refreshing. Her production combines an operatic grandeur with a richness of music and images and a wealth of imagination and humor.
  3. It’s romantic. These are passionate characters, madly — often foolishly — in love. Omnipresent roses — covering the stage, depicted sumptuously in the scenery, or falling from above — set the romantic mood. The talented actors make the most of Shakespeare’s ardent poetry, amorous characterizations, and erotic situations.
  4. It’s funny. The confused identities and misapprehensions are constantly amusing. The revelers — the bibulous, bawdy Sir Toby (Rick Foucheux); the plotting gentlewoman Maria (Nancy Robinette); the supporting schemer and servant Fabian (J. Fred Shiffman); the witty, ever-resourceful Feste (Stephen DeRosa); and especially the dim-witted fop Sir Andrew (Tom Story) are hilarious. Ted van Griethuysen’s Malvolio, the puritanical steward who is gulled into thinking the Countess Olivia is in love with him, is a delight to watch in the subtle eccentricities of his detailed characterization — by turns infuriatingly uptight, then farcically ridiculous and, in the end, almost pitiful, “most notoriously abused” and furiously vengeful. The letter scene, where Malvolio “finds” and reads a love letter supposedly from Olivia, as Toby, Andrew and Fabian watch from behind the “rose bushes” is a comedic tour de force.
  5. Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” will run through March 29 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre in Princeton. For information call (609) 258-2787 or visit

  6. It’s accessible and timeless in its appeal and significance. These actors have done their homework in understanding the complex Elizabethan poetry and prose, and they communicate the language with clarity and flair. Innumerable nuances in intonation, expression, gesture and movement all help to bring vibrant life to these multi-faceted characters and this compelling story.
  7. It’s thought-provoking. As the subtitle, “What You Will,” suggests, this play is full of ambiguities, elusive tone, and meaning. Ms. Taichman describes her guiding vision of the movement of the play as “a frozen, isolating world that blossoms into a lush rose garden.” Amidst the hilarity there is much sadness, anxiety, and loss. As the wise fool Feste warns, “Youth’s a stuff will not endure,” and then in the final lines, “The rain it raineth every day.” There are constant reminders of mortality even in the beautiful motif of the rose. “For women are as roses,” opines the Duke Orsino (Christopher Innvar), “whose fair flower being once displayed, doth fall that very hour.” And Viola (Rebecca Brooksher), in disguise as Cesario, responds, “And so they are. Alas that they are so, to die even when they to perfection grow!”
  8. It’s exhilarating in its sheer energy and exuberance — audacious in scale and design. Who wouldn’t want to spend a few hours in such a world, where melodious tones permeate the atmosphere and rose petals appear out of thin air at the least suggestion of romance?
  9. This is a top-flight company and a show with extraordinarily high production values. The actors — twelve principals and a supporting ensemble of five — are first-rate, experienced professionals, well-rehearsed and inspired in their imaginative character creations. The pit orchestra effectively complements the production, with original music by Martin Desjardins conducted by Barbara Irvine at the piano and an ensemble of four other musicians along with the striking operatic voice of Valentina Fleer. The play’s opening line sets the tone: “If music be the food of love, play on.” Set by Riccardo Hernandez, lighting by Christopher Akerlind and costumes by Miranda Hoffman are extravagant, dazzlingly creative, colorful, at times breathtakingly beautiful. And Ms. Taichman coordinates all with style and focus.
  10. Viola is one of the most memorable characters in all theater, and Feste, possibly the only voice of sanity in the play, is one of Shakespeare’s supreme creations. Ms. Brooksher does full justice to the intelligence, indomitable energy, and overwhelming charm of this plucky protagonist; (so much so that it’s even more disappointing than usual to see Viola end up with the self-centered, less-than inspiring Duke). And Mr. DeRosa is masterful in creating an appealing, convincing figure and delivering many of the most difficult lines in all Shakespeare with lucidity, spirit, and humor.
  11. Since you probably missed Mardi Gras and you might not have celebrated the actual Twelfth Night holiday in January (the Feast of Epiphany, the four kings) and even though it’s still Lent, you need a break, a celebration of revelry, a feast of misrule, as the Twelfth Night tradition calls for, before returning again to the routines of the workaday world. This Twelfth Night provides a thoroughly agreeable three-hour romp through a fantasy world full of music, poetry, spectacle, and drama.

Of course, if you’re partial to realism, as opposed to romance and operatic extravagance, this might not be the play or the production for you. Any production of Twelfth Night, with its vast array of coincidences and brother and sister twins who are constantly mistaken for each other and conveniently wait until the last act to appear in the same place at the same time, is bound to strain credibility, but Ms. Taichman does not hesitate to leap farther beyond the bounds of realism for dramatic effect on a number of occasions. In particular, the character of Olivia (Veanne Cox), who shifts suddenly from deep mourning to intense romantic passion and who here most closely mirrors Ms. Taichman’s concept of the play’s movement from icy darkness to rosy brilliance, becomes almost a caricature in her exaggerated reactions.

In discussing her study of the play prior to directing, Ms. Taichman describes, “My initial image was of the twins underwater being separated slowly, mysteriously, both reaching back towards each other while being pulled apart. The image, I came to understand, was a reflection of the river of sadness and insatiable longing that runs through Twelfth Night, and the beginning of my sense that in Illyria, laughter is always shot through with tears and tears with laughter.” That image and many more imbue this McCarter production with life and interest, and manifest strikingly the greatness of one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations.

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