Last summer, 13-season Shakespeare & Company veteran Jonathan Epstein played the title role in and handily dominated a commendable “Richard III,” which inaugurated the troupe’s tenure at the 500-seat Duffin Theater. This summer, he’s again the dominant player at the Duffin, as the clown Feste in a less commendable “Twelfth Night.”
“Twelfth Night” is an ensemble piece featuring a handful of fine roles, and productions of the play have been variously dominated by Malvolio or Sir Toby Belch or Viola, or, yes, even Feste. But Epstein is too obviously a far more mature and assured Shakespearean than almost anyone else in the cast, thereby upsetting the play’s balance.
Director Eleanor Eldridge has abetted the problem. Feste is the first character onstage, singing “When that I was and a little tiny boy,” which also ends the play (as Shakespeare had it), and Epstein’s middle-aged, intellectual, melancholy Feste takes charge of many another scene along the way.
The Maria, Malvolio, Sir Toby and Orsino roles are all unconvincingly cast, and turning Sebastian’s sea captain savior Antonio into a woman, Antonia (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) just doesn’t work. There’s another gender switch: Orsino’s gentleman Valentine is played by a woman, though this is a minor matter. (S&Co. has long been a hotbed of such gender-switching.)
As Maria, Annette Miller chews gum, teeters on high heels in a fur chubby, and completely lacks the character’s down-to-earth juiciness. Jonathan Croy’s Orsino lacks vocal and physical allure. And Michael Hammond’s bank-manager Malvolio, though he has his moments, fades away as his performance proceeds, and throws away his exit line.
As Sir Toby, Walton Wilson belches and burps with the best of them, but he looks all wrong (tall and slim and wearing a fur-collared overcoat), and inhabits the character only when he’s fully drunk. John Beale’s bouncy Aguecheek has far more personality.
For irrelevant reasons, this production is set in post-World War II America in a landscape that looks like the ghost of Coney Island past. All decaying slides and ramps and weedy seashore grass, it suggests “Waiting for Godot” more than “Twelfth Night.” Would the ruling Count Orsino and the rich Countess Olivia really live in such a rundown neighborhood?
Because of the period chosen, Christianna Nelson’s attractively characterized Olivia is portrayed as an elegant blonde modeling a luxurious Dior New Look wardrobe. When she claps eyes on Cesario/Viola (a cute but thin-voiced Kristin Wold) she immediately drops her mourning melancholy and becomes downright joyous. Trouble is, Wold’s Cesario is so tiny, boyish and callow (he looks about 16) that it’s impossible to believe that either Olivia or Orsino would fall in love with him. Adopt, yes; lust after and marry, no.
Worse still, Viola doesn’t look a bit like her brother Sebastian (Roderick Hill), her lookalike. Some suspension of disbelief is necessary in the theater, but casting has to do its part, too.
The cast does, on the whole, speak their lines clearly and understandably. But poetry and music are lacking in this production of one of Shakespeare’s most poetic and musical plays. Director Holdridge seems to be more interested in her drunken songs and fight scenes (Aguecheek and Cesario brawl wearing big red boxing gloves) than in the lyricism of Shakespeare.