Though they are presented as one production, the Aquila Theater Company is essentially mounting two versions of “Twelfth Night.” One involves the actors, delivering well-spoken text without much fuss. Then there’s the other version, the one with the obligatory “concept,” its design elements placing Shakespeare’s comedy in a darkly gothic world. Rather than these shadows enhancing the show, the design — mostly the work of co-directors Peter Meineck and Robert Richmond — just battles with the actors for control of the tone. Nobody wins.
It’s a good thing, however, that the players don’t get caught in the shallow thesis of the concept. Otherwise, they might strike the same dull note as the set, which communicates everything it can before the house lights dim. We’re greeted with a forced-perspective backdrop, a pleasant street scene whose buildings are painted the same pinkish hue as the floor. In front of the painting, however, sits a coffin. It gets used as a table, a chair and a prison, always reminding you there’s something rotten in the state of Illyria. Megan Bowers’ costumes remind you, too; the velvet capes and severe gray dresses seem inspired by Mary Shelley.
The music is just as grim. Using industrial techno beats and spooky, ambient wails, Anthony Cochrane’s compositions sound like the Bard performed by Nine Inch Nails.
In case this is too subtle, Meinick sometimes shoots orange light through the backdrop’s windows, making the buildings’ faces gleam like skulls. Have no doubt, there are wicked forces at work.
But what are they? In a director’s note, Meineck calls ‘Twelfth Night’ “Shakespeare’s own comment on the tide of single-minded religious Puritanism that was sweeping England (not so unlike the religious culture wars in American society today).”
Perhaps, but if Meineck and Richmond wanted to explore the religious oppression of love’s wild spirit, they could have chosen a script whose content better supports their ideas. The play does depict oppressive zealotry, just not in a threatening way.
Malvolio, of course, is a hostile Puritan, but he never has any power. In fact, one of this production’s delights is the scene where a forged letter tricks the haughty steward into wooing his mistress, Olivia. In an expert performance, Kenn Sabberton shows us a rigid man fumbling with kindness, including a hilarious attempt to smile. The actor’s body and Shakespeare’s words make Malvolio an oblivious clown, too driven by his ego and his groin to threaten with his beliefs. (Many productions even play him for sympathy, since he is laughed offstage while everyone else falls in love.)
Inappropriate as Malvolio might be, Feste (Louis Butelli) makes an even less-convincing agent of darkness. Wearing white face paint and a leather jacket with no shirt, he’s presented as a goth puppet master. It’s now Feste, for example, who gives Viola her Cesario costume, and he’s the only one aware of the coffin.
Again, this vision doesn’t hold. Meineck and Richmond fill every scene change with Butelli grimacing and the cast dumbly aping his movements, but the play contradicts his status as overlord. The wise clown exerts little control over the inevitable weddings and family reunions.
Butelli’s perf can’t communicate both fool and fiend, so it ends up a muddle of the two. The rest of the cast fares better, employing what the program calls Aquilas “understated” technique. Lisa Carter especially captivates as Olivia, conveying every new feeling as she’s overcome with desire for Cesario. Her entrances are always welcome, since they bring such light onto the dark and stormy stage.