Who was it said, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard”? The quote is attributed to several actors—the Edmunds Kean and Gwenn for two and several more in between. While it may be that dying isn’t necessarily easy, comedy is undeniably hard.
The reason is that, as many clowns might tell you, it takes great and sly effort to make it look effortless. If comedy comes across as actors working hard to be funny, it’s invariably a misfire. If the calculated pratfalls add up to one big, unintended pratfall, there’s a besetting problem. Which is the case with the Twelfth Night currently at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, which is an Acting Company co-production with The Resident Ensemble Players.
Rarely have so many players toiled so strenuously to make a William Shakespeare comedy spring to raucous life. Rarely have so many players fallen so wide of the mark. To be fair, it needs be said that the supposedly hilarious Shakespeare characters—Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek here, for instance—require especially deft handling to amuse contemporary audiences.
But while excusing actors not up to the challenge, though valiantly attempting to get there, may be appropriate, enjoying their deficiency is not possible. Yes, as this Twelfth Night wended its not merry way, there were scattered laughs from those assembled, but even then it seemed as if the patrons tittering were doing so not because they were genuinely moved but because they knew what was occurring was planned to be funny and they’d politely oblige.
Maria Aitken directed this troupe of players drawn entirely from alumni of The Acting Company and/or from the University of Delaware-based REP. Aitken’s list of directing achievements is long (likewise her list of acting credits), as are the credits for the actors gathered, which immediately raises the query: What went wrong?
Possibly, there’s an answer. Perhaps it’s that there’s a mysterious rift between Aitken’s training in England and the training of the performers she was guiding. This despite her having taught at, among other vaunted places, Juilliard, and being the author of Style: Acting in High Comedy.
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is high comedy, of course, which includes low comedy and comedy in between. So this doesn’t speak well of Aitken’s tome when considered in context with her treatment of a tale wherein twins Viola (Susanna Stahlmann) and Sebastian (John Skelley) are separated in a storm at sea and fated to live for a time on hectic Illyria where, disguised as a boy, she falls for Duke Orsino (Matthew Greer), and he meets and marries the mourning Olivia (Elizabeth Heflin), whom Orsino thinks he must wed.
Can it be that Aitken wants Sir Toby Belch (Lee E. Ernst), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Michael Gotch), the scheming maid Maria (Kate Forbes), Olivia’s man Malvolio (Stephen Pelinski), Feste (Joshua David Robinson), Fabian (Mic Matarrese) and the rest pushing so strenuously to squeeze giggles from the onlookers?
Is she convinced that Stahlmann’s unceasingly flat delivery as Viola will enchant? Does she really believe that it makes sense to pair Stahlmann and, in his turn, Skelley with the enamored yet somewhat older-looking Heflin without transforming Olivia into an Elizabethan cougar? Is she confident that it’s a valid comic notion to hobble Malvolio when he comes before Olivia in cross-gartered yellow stockings?
This Twelfth Night takes place in a large grey box with an upstage set of steps in front of a high wall with a window through which an unchanging view of a large quiet lake and low mountains looms. Lee Savage is the designer of the generally unappealing Illyria, which Philip S. Rosenberg lights. Candice Donnelly designed the okay costumes. John Gromada composed the original music and must have had an off day when conjuring the melody for Shakespeare’s poignant “O Mistress Mine” lyric.
Exiting the event, one patron loudly announced to those around him, “No matter how it’s played, [Twelfth Night] is the greatest comedy ever written.” The production just viewed did very little to substantiate that arguable claim.
Twelfth Night opened May 13, 2018, at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center and runs through May 27. Tickets and information: tfana.org