Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Twelfth Night


By William Shakespeare. Directed by J.R. Sullivan. Pearl Theatre. (CLOSED)

Critics weren't overly enthusiastic but they respectfully enjoyed the Pearl Theatre Company's faithful production of Shakespeare's classic tale of mistaken identities. Most of the praise goes to the company, particularly Dominic Cuskern as Malvolio; critics are less enamored with Ali Ahn's insufficiently deep performance as Viola.

Theatermania B+
(Barbara & Scott Siegel) In the Pearl Theatre Company's robust production of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, being performed under the watchful direction of J.R. Sullivan, this rueful comedy takes pains to allow for poignancy along with its playful shenanigans. Indeed, this story of shipwrecked twins Viola (Ali Ahn) and Sebastian (Joseph Midyett), who eventually find love in Illyria, owes much of its success to the performances of its supporting players. Sean McNall as Feste (The Fool) sets the tone of the piece with his boyish innocence that belies his sharply knowing wit. He gives the play its comic drive and underscores, with his musical voice, the beauty of the language. His performance is perfectly balanced against the play's most weighty character, the comically abused Malvolio (Dominic Cuskern), the haughty servant who is fooled into thinking that his mistress, Lady Olivia (Rachel Botchan), is in love with him. Cuskern gives full dimension to Malvolio, first making him convincingly officious, then comically foolish, and then ultimately heartbreaking when he is broken with humiliation.

Backstage B+
(Leonard Jacobs) Director J.R. Sullivan's production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" for the Pearl Theatre Company made me think about cartoons. Not those in which the characters are so exaggerated that only an animator could have invented them, but those in which characters are just slightly larger than reality. True, the play itself operates in this vein with its tale of twins Viola and Sebastian, separated in a shipwreck, and how mistaken identities and interlocking romances unfurl in the idyll of Illyria. But it's this revival's invigorating acting that demonstrates the difference between clever cartoon and merely coy caricature. Consider Michael Gabriel Goodfriend's dashing Duke Orsino. He's desperately in love with the pert, poised Lady Olivia of Rachel Botchan, and Goodfriend sells that desperation with all the gooeyness of the end of Madame Butterfly. Nor is Orsino the most brazenly comic soul on stage: Those honors naturally go to Olivia's uncle Sir Toby Belch, played with brashly inebriated bombast by Bradford Cover; Olivia's would-be suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played with geeky grandiosity by David L. Townsend; and Feste the clown, played by the prodigiously talented Sean McNall.

AM New York B+
(Matt Windman) It should be stressed that the Pearl is the city's last classical theater company with a repertory company of actors. Last week, it was announced that J.R. Sullivan, who directed "Twelfth Night," will take over as artistic director for founder Shepard Sobel. As it happens, this playful, nicely staged production is a good omen for the company's future...The biggest winner in the cast is Dominic Cuskern, who emphasizes the full range of emotions exhibited by OliviaĆ­s delusional servant Malvolio. When urged to change his gloomy demeanor by the scheming trio of Toby, Andrew and Maria, he literally manipulates his lips with his fingers in order to make a smile. Later on, his reaction to learning about the prank is nothing short of heartbreaking. B+
(Megin Jimenez) The Pearl Theatre Company's production, directed by J.R. Sullivan, lustily takes up the madcap spirit, with riffs of physical comedy, music, and bits of song, among other embellishments. While at times risking disingenuousness, the additions illuminate relationships and motivations, and the cast remains cleanly engaged with the language...Liz Covey's notable costume design takes up the same sort of "just go with it" (or, "what you will") spirit of the play, with success. Though eclectic, the choices are not arbitrary. The aim is not to re-contextualize the work in another time period, rather the characters become images from dream logic where all manner of references are possible, and somehow fit. The blustering Sir Toby, for example, is in a safari outfit, paunchy and colonial, while his dopey companion Sir Andrew looks a kind of American Southern dandy in bow-tie.

CurtainUp B-
(Gregory A. Wilson) On the whole, then, this is a competent production. . .so why do I hesitate in pronouncing it an unqualified success? To go back to my line about the parents, part of my frustration may be in wanting more than the Pearl, at times, seems willing to deliver. At its best the company delivers an entertaining and professional performance of classic work, and such moments are a pleasure to watch. But at other times it seems so insistent on accuracy and proper reverence to the text and its author that the result is a little stiff, a little obvious--predictable rather than penetrating. When Malvolio delivers his final line "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you," the mood is deadly serious, as it should be. But a second after his exit everyone is smiling again, pleased at the prospect of dual marriages and happy reunions, Malvolio's absence, Aguecheek's dismissal from court and Antonio's ambiguous fate all seemingly forgotten. Not even Feste--who in some productions is directed to express his doubt about this result, despite the role he played in bringing it about--seems particularly perturbed. This isn't textually wrong, but it seems energetically off from the tension Shakespeare clearly intended to represent, and I sometimes found myself longing for a bit more of the vitality of the Neo-Classical Ensemble and less of the classroom perfection the Pearl inevitably provides. In general, this is a solid show. But I do wish that the company would occasionally be willing to take the risk of letting its reach exceed its grasp.

Theatermania B+ 11; Backstage B+ 11; AM New York B+ 11; B 11; CurtainUp B- 9; TOTAL: SCORE 53/5 = 10.6 (B+)

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