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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
One could fill up a small book about all the actors who have played the clowns and lovers of Shakespeare's last comedy, and the directorial diddlings with various updated ideas and settings. If the most recent productions are any indications, there would be a whole chapter on interesting failures. The musical Play On, which tried to marry the Bard and Duke Ellington, went to an early grave (a now forgotten 1968 musical adaptation, Your Own Thing, had a longer and more successful life). The Twelfth Night (see Link below) at Lincoln Center was a triumph for its designer and chief comic characters and a disaster for its celebrity romantics. Shakespeare & Company's take on the Ilyrian fantasy is another case of imaginative staging and inspired acting that falls short of its goals.
Director Eleanor Holdridge's linking the imaginary island of Illyria with the very real Coney Island in Brooklyn during its post World War II decline is visually intriguing but in the final analysis does little to strengthen the play's themes. As for the inspired acting, this is a case of the cup being only half full. There are some very good performances, some not so good. But the inspired acting is a solo triumph.
As Feste the fool, Jonathan Epstein adds yet another jewel to his crown as one of the company's reigning talents. He knows how to make Shakespeare's wordplay work and he sings splendidly in the bargain. If any actor can be said to dominate this evening and to truly evoke the sense of a grand past emerging from and rejuvenating the deteriorating present, Epstein is definitely the man. Anyone who has followed his career will want to see this production if only to see his Festes.
While Epstein's fool is a man for all ages -- except for a rakish fedora hat, even his ragtag outfit could fit any time frame the director chose, the rest of the cast is very definitely in the 1940s ambience. Thanks to Jon Pennoyer's wonderful costumes and the fine work of choreographer Susan Dibble and movement coach Sarah Barker, we are treated to some exciting images. Kris Stone's vision of Coney Island will hardly stir anyone's real steeple chase memories, yet the generic beach scene abetted by Daniel Levy's excellent sound design, contributes to the production's visual assets.
With the exception of Jonathan Croy's Orsino and Michael Hammond's Malvolio, the rest of the cast doesn't come close to Mr. Epstein's bravura performance. Dressed more for the Hamptons than Coney Island and with his head stylishly shaved, Croy, who is not an actor one associates with romantic leads, manages to project a convincing sexual charisma. As with his past roles, he knows his way around Shakespearean line delivery, from his opening "If music be the food of love, play on" to his final declaration of love for the unmasked Cesario/Viola (Kristin Wold).
Too bad the objects of his affections are so much weaker. Christianna Nelson, a newcomer to the company, certainly looks the part of the blonde pinup girl sex kitten. The beach scene in which she attempts to seduce Cesario/Viola by having him/her apply sunscreen to her shapely shoulders and legs is one of a number of colorfully amusing touches. Unfortunately, Ms. Nelson's skills as a Shakespearean actress don't match her appearance. Kristin Wold's Viola is somewhat too pale and serious and lacking in the emotion needed for the lovestruck page. The best that can be said for another company newcomer, Roderick Hill, is that his Sebastian bears a reasonably convincing resemblance to his stage twin.
Michael Hammond is a properly pompous and puritanical Malvolio. The scenes in which he is duped into believing that his mistress Olivia thinks of him as more than her trusted aide-de-campe are among the long evening's standouts -- once again abetted by Jon Pennoyer's amusing costumes. As for the other famously comic characters who give him his comeuppance -- Sir Toby Belch(Walton Wilson), Sir Andrew Ague Cheeks (John Beale), Fabian (Michael Toomey) and Olivia's lady in waiting Maria (Annette Miller) -- they are all accomplished Shakespeareans who clearly have fun with their parts and but fail to be consistently funny.
Another new casting wrinkle is to turn the sea captain Antonio into Antonia. There's nothing wrong with the excellent Elizabeth Aspenlieder's Antonia, except that her thespian and real life colleague Dan McLeary would have been a wiser casting choice for the part. While Ms. Holdridge was probably attempting to put to rest the common speculation about a sexual relationship between Antonio and Sebastian, this gender reversal simply doesn't work.
All this said, what we have here is an innovative interpretation of a play with some of Shakespeare's most memorable language. It isn't an unmitigated success, neither are its weaknesses fatal -- especially if you like a fabulous fool.
For reviews of other Shakespeare productions, including Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center and Play On see our unique quotations page: Shakespeare's Little Instruction Book