Review: “Twelfth Night” at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival

John P. McCarthy

When Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival leader Davis McCallum tapped Moritz von Stuelpnagel to direct “Twelfth Night,” doubtless he felt he was getting someone who could mine the play’s rich veins of humor. Von Stuelpnagel was fresh off helming a successful Broadway revival of “Present Laughter” starring Kevin Kline. (The fact that Noel Coward took the title of his play from a song in “Twelfth Night” had to augur well.) And in 2015 von Stuelpnagel directed “Hand to God”, the much-lauded comedy that used a hand puppet to skewer Christian fundamentalism.

But of course proof of the shrewdness of the hire can only be found in the resulting production. Fortunately, McCallum’s instincts – and whatever else contributed to the decision to recruit von Stuelpnagel – were spot on. This “Twelfth Night” is hilarious – a tasty, immensely satisfying pudding that captures the comedic essence of the play.

One way to characterize von Stuelpnagel’s directorial approach is to quote the jester Feste and declare he is “wise enough to play the fool.” That is, he’s smart enough to accentuate the humor and let Shakespeare’s proclamations about the nature of love and any darker undertones in the text take care of themselves. He tries to squeeze out nearly every drop of humor in “Twelfth Night”, yet with a light touch that suits both the material and the casual, bucolic setting – a tent overlooking the mighty Hudson River roughly sixty miles north of Broadway. The company appears extremely willing, and for the most part able, to follow his deft lead. What transpires is accessible and well-measured – ideal entertainment for a summer evening. 

The key to the show’s emphasis on the sweet rather than the bitter, on jocularity rather than cruelty or psychological complexity, lies in the depictions of Duke Orsino and Lady Olivia. Their musings on romance can often come off as tediously pompous. Here, however, these two powerful figures atop Illyria’s food chain are treated as comical, as capable of seeming ridiculous and triggering laughter as their lessers. When Orsino (David Ryan Smith) delivers his famous speech about music being the food of love near the beginning of Act I, he’s not listlessly mooning over Olivia (Krystel Lucas) nor fatuously pondering amour in the abstract. He’s petulant and impatient – an aristocratic stalker of sorts. He’s a royal celebrity energetically fixated on a fellow celebrity.

For her part, Olivia is just going through the motions of mourning her late brother. Wearing dark glasses and enormous straw hat, she’s a glamorous movie star or diva surrounded by an entourage of sycophantic personal assistants and embarrassingly crass, boozed-up relatives. Aloof behind her facade of fashion accessories, surgical enhancements, and luxurious amenities, she rejects Orsino’s overtures and is committed to remaining beyond the reach of all her admirers and fawning fans. Nevertheless, when she encounters someone she fancies, even Olivia is prone to silly and gauche behavior. The object of her desire is Viola (Kerry Warren), the shipwrecked twin who, dressed as a young man called Cesario, joins Orsino’s household and is sent to woo Olivia on his master’s behalf.

When it comes to matters of the heart, Olivia and Orsino are all-too-human, and therefore potentially risible. This insight allows von Stuelpnagel to avoid getting bogged down in the specifics of their respective yearnings or those of any character. Love and/or sexual attraction are pretexts for comedy first and foremost; the audience isn’t prompted to question or theorize about either phenomenon. It doesn’t matter why Olivia instantly falls in love with the cross-dressing Viola. (Or whether she and her twin brother Sebastian look anything alike.) Who cares if it seems far-fetched that Orsino would immediately agree to wed the pining Viola upon learning she was posing as a man? All that’s necessary to tee up the comedy is for them to believe they are in love. In addition to a modicum of knowledge about theatrical conventions and narrative devices, Von Stuelpnagel is banking on the probability that contemporary theatergoers will bring a less rigid view of sexuality and romance. Add our familiarity with narcissistic celebrity types and much of the explicative work is already done, thus clearing the way for mirth.

Although Orsino and Olivia trigger a much higher percentage of the laughter than in most versions of “Twelfth Night”, the escapades of the nominally secondary characters – Olivia’s witless suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Sean McNall), her debauched uncle Sir Toby Belch (Kurt Rhoads), and her housekeeper Maria (Mary Bacon) – are still the source of the bulk of the humor. McNall’s Andrew is a preppy nincompoop clad in pink Bermuda shorts, Top Siders and a tennis sweater. He’s a like a wannabe frat brother (the flailing love child of Barney Fife and Mickey Rooney) and McNall delivers a terrific performance. As the hard-partying Toby, Rhoads sports a WWI-era uniform, a huge belly, and liquor-enflamed cheeks. In his twentieth HVSF campaign, Rhoads adeptly executes a sidesplitting urination gag. And during the night’s funniest sequence, Toby and Andrew employ some fake bushes and a garden hose while listening to Malvolio read the bogus love letter from Olivia that Maria has penned.

Olivia’s fool Feste (Michael Broadhurst) offers comedic counterpoint to the broad physical antics of this threesome. Broadhurst brings a millennial hipster’s calm to Feste’s word games, demonstrating that this jester is a different kind of disrupter than the drunken Toby or scheming Maria. Sly and methodical, he operates on a seemingly harmless intellectual plane, though he’s not above a clownish outburst or some cruel mimicry. Broadhurst doesn’t sound too confident (or melodious) when singing Feste’s songs but is more at ease when strumming an electric guitar and several other instruments.

The production appears to lack a unifying theme beyond the notion that comedy is king. That’s a virtue except insofar as it impacts the visual style, which can be described as ad hoc. The costuming is somewhat random. It runs the gamut from Malvolio’s Edwardian tailcoat to Toby’s doughboy uniform to a priest dressed as a 1960’s flower child to Olivia’s stylishly frilly dresses to plainer outfits that can be seen on the street today. Save for an underused, roughly twelve-foot long elevated wooden ramp that connects the Boscobel House lawn to the main performance space under the tent, there’s virtually no scenery or set pieces; and few props are utilized. Granted, the stunning natural backdrop provided by the Adirondacks makes trying to conjure Illyria less of a priority. And as a rule, a spare aesthetic is less objectionable than a cluttered stage. But there’s something skimpy about the design work in general, and when compared to other HVSF productions.

This places more emphasis on the blocking, movement, language and acting. Von Stuelpnagel’s staging of the second half of the play is admirably fluid, with the action unfolding rapidly and clearly. Music by three fine musicians (on violin, viola and clarinet) who are also members of the acting ensemble helps create the free-flowing vibe. Nevertheless, there are incidental passages that feel stilted and slightly undercooked, particularly pre-intermission. Either these scenes didn’t receive as much attention during rehearsals or they stubbornly resist the comedic imperative and can’t be made funny. It should be noted that most of these less lively scenes feature younger actors from HVSF’s Conservatory Company.

One major character does disappoint. Typically the source of much levity, Olivia’s steward Malvolio (Stephen Paul Johnson) feels like a true outlier in this production. Comparatively restrained and never expansive, it’s almost as though he’s been imported from another “Twelfth Night”. His officiousness doesn’t seem to warrant the mocking and humiliation he receives. To be sure, every Malvolio has to vie with Toby and Andrew for laughs; and no Malvolio can ever fully share in the joke, since he is so much the butt of the joke. There’s never a happy ending for him, no reversal of the reversal he suffers. But this Malvioli is truly eclipsed and muted.

One reason he seems out of step is that his preening self-regard doesn’t appear so outrageous or irksome when his boss (and would-be lover) is such a diva herself. Competition for laughs from unexpected corners – Orsino and Olivia – makes the role appear less amusing by comparison. Still, there’s something more in this “Twelfth Night” that amplifies Malvolio’s isolation and pushes him further outside of society, beyond the redemptive power of laughter. Indeed, Malvolio’s cardinal sin, and the root of his downfall, is his inability to laugh at himself. Not only does he take himself too seriously, he lacks the self-awareness to know when he’s being ridiculous. Even Andrew is able to laugh at himself and cop to the extent of his folly, albeit without fully comprehending how or why he appears so ludicrous and pathetic.

So here’s a message to be gleaned from this “Twelfth Night”. Namely, we are doomed if we cannot laugh at ourselves. Kudos to Moritz von Stuelpnagel and company for celebrating the balm that laughter can be and the positive effect that comedy can have. Sometimes you need to “vent thy folly”.  And sometimes watching other people do so is just the ticket.

Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Twelfth Night” runs through August 26, 2017 at Boscobel House and Gardens, 1601 Route 9D, Garrison, NY. Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson