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.