Bard on the Beach's Twelfth Night is heavy on concept

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      By William Shakespeare. Directed by Dennis Garnhum. A Bard on the Beach production. On the BMO Mainstage on Wednesday, June 26. Continues until September 14

      In his direction of Twelfth Night, Dennis Garnhum sometimes reveals the text in fresh ways and sometimes obscures it as he screams, “Look at me! Look at me!” The whole thing is pretty concept-heavy.

      Garnhum sets the romantic comedy in a seaside resort circa 1910. Shipwrecked and convinced that her twin brother, Sebastian, has drowned, Viola washes up on the shores of this wicker-furnished Illyria. To survive, she disguises herself as a youth named Cesario and takes a job as a page to Duke Orsino, with whom she promptly falls in love. But Orsino is smitten with a noblewoman named Olivia, and when he sends Cesario to her to plead his suit, Olivia falls head over heels for Cesario. It’s a cross-dressing, gender-bending festival of longing.

      Two charismatic, intellectually alert performances anchor this production. Rachel Cairns’s Viola is full of heart; I’ve never seen Viola’s grief over her lost brother rendered with such tenderness. And Cairns makes Viola a sly young thing, always actively thinking her way through her deception as she savours and suffers its ironies. Then there’s Jonathon Young’s work as Feste, Olivia’s clown. Young has the remarkable ability to make everything appear clearer whenever he’s on-stage. I suspect this has to do with how fully he inhabits his body and how responsive his body is to language. Clothed by Nancy Bryant in a tight jacket and too-short trousers that emphasize his line-drawing lankiness, Young cuts a fine silhouette, and his thought processes are as sharp as his postures; there’s a kind of amoral alertness about him.

      Oddly cast as Sir Andrew Aguecheek—the role of the foolish knight usually goes to a much younger actor—Richard Newman succeeds by trusting the simple stupidity of the character.

      The production gets into trouble, however. The airy lightness of the setting—somewhat fussily realized by designer Pam Johnson—suits the play’s sensuality. But the idea that Olivia’s court is a seaside resort, complete with front desk, room keys, and concierge, doesn’t really make sense: Olivia is a countess, not an innkeeper, and no hotel business is ever transacted.

      As Garnhum leans into his resort concept, he falls over. The greatest loss comes in a series of scenes involving Olivia’s steward, Malvolio. A trio of Olivia’s other servants gang up on their priggish colleague, first convincing him that Olivia wants to marry him, then convincing the entire court that Malvolio is mad. In the text, he ends up in a dark dungeon. Here, however, because we’re in a resort, he is confined in one of those supposedly weight-reducing steam cabinets with his blindfolded head sticking out. The abuse of Malvolio can speak profoundly to the cruelty of comedy, but it becomes ridiculous here and loses its impact.

      Elsewhere, Garnhum allows a group of carousing noblemen to engage in a lengthy songfest that contributes unnecessarily to the show’s two-hour-and-45-minute running time. This production’s comic business, including a lengthy letter reading by Allan Zinyk’s Malvolio, is sometimes laboriously slow.

      The director also squanders the riches of Jennifer Lines’s talent. Lines, who plays Olivia, is one of the most emotionally present, technically skilled actors you’ll see. But, unfortunately, Garnhum has encouraged Lines to make Olivia a hysterical fool. That makes her love for Cesario, which we’ve got to believe in if we’re going to care at all about the story, look absurd. Yes, Lines can go over the top if you ask her, but you shouldn’t ask her.

      The clear bits are great, but Garnhum slathers over too many passages with unhelpful ideas.




      Jun 28, 2013 at 7:00am

      Thanks Colin! Sometimes "updating" Shakespeare to pander to modern audiences falls flat on its face--as you suggest here. I saw a production at JAC not too long ago that was played straight. However, the actors weren't of this caliber. I have tickets and will go, but I am skeptical about liking it.


      Jun 28, 2013 at 8:57pm

      A simple and funny adaptation of Twelfth Night. You expect too much of one of WS's funniest if you want more than this.


      Jul 14, 2013 at 10:46pm

      I just saw this production and while I can see your criticism, I think you're being a little harsh. I thought the use of a sauna as a modern update of torture was a brilliant update. Particularly in a light comedy like this. Yes some some editing of the singing could have been done, but I was never bored.

      Overall, while not a home run, it was very solid, inventive and well acted. An evening well spent.


      Jul 15, 2013 at 9:35am

      I think the setting actually worked very well. I did not think of Olivia as an inn keeper but a long term guest of the resort. The sauna scene with Malvolio was a little silly but this is a comedy after all.

      One thing I think you missed when discussing Lines' performance as Olivia is that she is not right for the part. While she is a very talented actress I wondered if she was too old for Olivia. It was especially uncomfortable when she and Sebastian were together in the end and he looked as though he were twelve years old. You also might have wanted to mention the extremely sexy sauna scene that allowed us to see some of Vancouver's hottest actors assets.


      Jul 26, 2013 at 12:40am

      @Katie - It's interesting that you were uncomfortable with Ms. Lines being older than Mr. Doheny but didn't mention that you were uncomfortable with the age difference between Orsino and Viola? I loved the love story between both sets!