The Illyria depicted by scenic designer Lee Savage in The Acting Company’s new production of Twelfth Night is as sleek and coolly inviting as a brochure for a new luxury apartment building. The sea that tosses twins Sebastian and Viola about is represented by waves of azure and starker colors seen through a rectangular frame, planted just a few steps above the mostly bare stage. A balcony, a bench, a couple of chairs and splashes of greenery reveal the capacity for playfulness amid the elegant minimalism, for the hijinks and wooing we know lie ahead.
Unfortunately, neither the sexiness nor the whimsy of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy is fully served by this uneven staging. Director Maria Aitken, also an accomplished actress and teacher, made a big splash last decade helming The 39 Steps, an exuberant mock thriller that proved a hit across the pond and on and off Broadway. Her Twelfth Night, by comparison, can feel labored or curiously staid at points—though there are lovely bits, both funny and moving, for those who stick with it.
This production is very much anchored by its Viola, played by Susanna Stahlmann, a young actress whose resonant voice, coltish beauty and sturdy presence suggest both innocence and resolve. The actress and character’s dominance in the piece seems timely, as does the relative sense of ease the former brings to the latter. When this Viola assumes the identity of boy servant Cesario to fool Duke Orsino into letting her act as messenger to the Countess Olivia, the object of his unrequited love, Stahlmann doesn’t affect much of a struggle with the masculine clothes and gait. And when the generally noble Orsino, whom Viola secretly loves, opines on the difference between the sexes in language that would today inspire protests and Twitter barbs, the actress betrays more amusement than confusion or indignation, suggesting Viola is confident in her keener wisdom.
Stahlmann and Matthew Greer’s dashing but vulnerable Orsino are well-matched, managing a tender chemistry with a promising crackle underneath. (Aitken pushes the tension between them only once, in a scene where Orsino is directed to lean into Olivia and begin rubbing her arms, apparently under the spell of music.) Aitken has also emphasized Viola’s youth—and Cesario’s, and Sebastian’s—by assigning the role of Olivia to Elizabeth Heflin, a maturely beautiful veteran with a seasoned voice and a dry, knowing comic dexterity.
Heflin faces a particular challenge when Olivia unwittingly falls in love with Cesario, and later, when the duchess finds a better fit with Sebastian, played as a strapping, eager young man by John Skelley. That the twins (and particularly Cesario) seem younger than Olivia is not inappropriate, but the apparent age difference here suggests a Mrs. Robinson figure—and if that was Aitken’s intention, its purpose was lost on this critic, at least.
The more patently clownish characters are also a mixed bag. Joshua David Robinson’s earthy, contemporary Feste and Lee E. Ernst’s classically hammy Sir Toby Belch seem to have wandered in from different productions. A spry Kate Forbes and slinky Michael Gotch strike a better balance as Maria and Sir Andrew Aguecheck, but the wackier scenes can drag. Hassan El-Amin offers dramatic relief as a robust Antonio, and Stephen Pelinski is a respectably pathetic Malvolio, sporting a shock of grey hair that makes him look like a punk Einstein.
Aitken frames her Twelfth Night to provide a haunting, sweetly sung coda, reinforcing the connection between the water that nearly swallowed Sebastian and Viola and the land on which they find happy endings. It’s a fitting reminder, one of several in this inconsistent but affecting production, that life and art can reward patience.
Twelfth Night opened May 13, 2018, at Polonsky Shakespeare Center and runs through May 27. Tickets and information: tfana.org