There are no accidental moments in the Chekhov Intl. Theater Festival’s tightly choreographed “Twelfth Night,” and the precision enthralls. Directed by Declan Donnellan and partially designed by Nick Ormerod — the team that heads Brit company Cheek by Jowl — the production moves with such fluid confidence that it could almost succeed as ballet. Stage pictures wordlessly express the passions aflame in Shakespeare’s play.
That’s a boon, since the show is performed in Russian by an all-male cast. Most auds will only understand the English projected on surtitles, but the coherent visual narrative keeps the production from becoming a reading exercise.
Donnellan often keeps his actors still, forming evocative images like Duke Orsino (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) standing frozen with a retinue of servants in a half-circle behind him. Across the stage, Viola (Andrey Kuzichev), pretending to be his manservant Cesario, seems terribly vulnerable and alone.
But even motionless, the actors aren’t blank. When facing Orsino, Kuzichev holds his shoulders in an open stance and keeps his hands placed delicately on his chest. His body tells us that Viola/Cesario’s weakness is caused by love, not fear.
Throughout the show, the cast emote more with their bodies than their faces, finding endless positions for their hands, arms and legs. It’s no surprise that the program credits a movement director, a movement coach and a choreographer.
Donnellan highlights the actors’ physical expertise by balancing stillness with slow movement. Thesps glide across the stage, as though too assured to rush. Since all performers are equally skilled, they fill the languorous time with detail. The production feels elegant, not leaden.
Dmitry Dyuzhev proves an especially pleasing standout as Aguecheek, a dimwitted suitor to Olivia. Dyuzhev makes him a blowhard fop who’s so busy thinking about his own impressiveness that he almost ruins his friends’ scheme to embarrass Malvolio (Dmitry Shcherbina), Olivia’s haughty steward. It’s a delight watching him almost get spotted when he’s supposed to be spying on Malvolio from the background.
However, the fact that a minor character can become so significant also signals the production’s bias. Like most modern stagings, this “Twelfth Night” places as much focus on the lower-class figures as on the noble couples pitching woo.
We’re asked to pay more attention to Aguecheek because he is connected to the production’s focal character: Malvolio. Though everyone’s storyline is carefully shaped, the steward gets special treatment. He gets to enter from the audience, for instance, and when he’s duped into believing Olivia loves him, Donnellan empties the stage. That way, Shcherbina can perform a centerpiece monologue full of tears and surprise.
Granted, it’s a beautiful scene, and it makes Malvolio sympathetic. His emotional impact only increases when his fellow servants lock him up for discussing Olivia’s supposed feelings. In the show’s darkest section, we see a bloody-faced Malvolio in ripped clothes, moaning pitifully from a shadowy patch on the floor.
It’s valid to highlight the cruelty in these incidents, but as much as contempo artists might want him to be, the steward is not this play’s primary character. If Viola, Orsino and Olivia get less interpretive attention from the creative team, the play’s last moments become difficult to justify.
Donnellan attempts it by interrupting the happy wedding scene with a sudden reappearance from Malvolio. The wronged man steps centerstage and sneers, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.” End of show.
This announcement is played as a serious threat, but at the perf reviewed, it made the audience laugh. In a way, the production is too beautiful to make room for such darkness.