Times Theater Critic

The Stratford Festival Canada has come to town for a week at the Doolittle Theatre, offering “Twelfth Night” in repertory with “King Lear.” “Lear” stars Douglas Campbell and was staged by John Hirsch, two artists who enjoy butting their heads against a major text. We’ll have a report in Tuesday’s Times.

“Twelfth Night” was staged by David Giles, whose work on the BBC’s recent “The Shakespeare Plays” suggests that he sees the director’s major responsibility in Shakespeare as being that of a facilitator. He is to make sure that the actors speak well, wear appropriate costumes and come in at the right time. The rest can be left to the play.

I wonder. Certainly the Stratford actors give a clear and musical reading of their lines in this “Twelfth Night.” Certainly Saturday night’s audience reacted freshly to the story. As far as it went, everything went very nicely.

But only one character--Edward Atienza as Feste the clown--seemed interested in going beneath the play’s charming surface to touch on the life issues that make “Twelfth Night” a wise play as well as a charming one. It’s not that the younger players came off as being silly or trivial. They just hadn’t been encouraged to look under their lines for those clues that can so enrich a line.


Seana McKenna as Viola, for example. Fresh of face and clear of eye, McKenna makes Viola an endearing tomboy. But the realization that Olivia (Maria Ricossa) literally takes her for a man doesn’t seem to give her pause at all. She registers it, of course--it’s a plot point--but the next time we see her she’s as cheerful as before, almost as if she’d forgotten it.

Now we don’t want Viola moping around to the detriment of the fun of the play. But a certain amount of real perplexity would make it easier for us to see her as a young woman with some consideration for other people’s feelings, rather than as a stock ingenue in an Elizabethan disguise comedy. We’d like her better; we’d know her better, and (ironically) the fun of the situation would be strengthened.

Even pastoral comedy needs a little pain to give it savor. This “Twelfth Night” avoids all sharp edges, declining even to caricature its cartoon figures. Granted that most productions go too far in mocking Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Richard McMillan presents him as a harmless simp whose presence wouldn’t upset the best-run household. Similarly, one can’t picture James Blendick’s Sir Toby Belch emitting a real belch--he’d be sure to cover it with his hand.

Maria (Patricia Collins) isn’t the madcap of most productions, but an utterly respectable housekeeper, to the point where it’s hard to believe that indelicate hand business in her first scene with Aguecheek. Orsino (Colm Feore) says that he’s dying of love, but his body language is that of an active young man who doesn’t believe in taking naps in the middle of the day--an extrovert if ever there was one.


Rather than fantasticks--fools for love--this seems a very decorous collection of young aristocrats who are in total command of themselves, thank you very much. This lends an air of charade to the problems that they are supposedly having in sorting out their love affairs. One welcomes a “Twelfth Night” that doesn’t push too hard, but one without tension at all verges on complacency. What lovely words, what a lovely dreamy mood! Yes, but even in the lightest comedy, something has to be at stake.

Happily, Atienza’s Feste is there to lend an intermittent credence to this Ilyria-Utopia. He sings “Come Away, Death” bewitchingly (it’s what stirs Orsino into noticing that there’s something strangely sympathetic about his new page). But these heavenly airs don’t just come to him, he’s got to make them up, which is why he has no time to chatter with Viola.

Atienza takes Feste out of the realm of the stereotype, and others in the company might have been able to do the same--Nicholas Pennell as the sour-faced Malvolio, for instance. But the requirement was merely to be festive and tasteful, and that has been achieved (in Christina Poddubiuk’s design as well). It wouldn’t be fair to call this an example of Peter Brook’s deadly theater, but it is fair to call it museum theater. One doesn’t have to travel to Stratford to find that.



Shakespeare’s comedy, presented by the Stratford Festival Canada production, at the Doolittle Theatre. Presented by UCLA Center for the Arts. Director David Giles. Restaged by John Hirsch. Costumes and set Christina Poddubiuk. Lighting Michael J. Whitfield. Music Louis Applebaum. Fights and dances supervised by John Broome. Assistant director Jeanette Aster. Stage manager Margaret Palmer. Assistant stage managers Victoria Klein, Peter McGuire. Assistant designer Jennifer Carroll. Assistant lighting designer Elizabeth Asselstine. With Colm Feore, Brent Strait, David Renton, Seana McKenna, Michael Sheperd, James Blendick, Patricia Collins, Richard McMillan, Edward Atienza, Maria Ricossa, Nicholas Pennell, Benedict Campbell, Ernest Harrop, Keith Dinicol, Simon Bradbury, William Dunlop, Nolan Jennings, Charles Kerr, Eric McCormack, Brian Paul, Kelly Bricker, Julie Khaner, Elizabeth McDonald, Nolan Jennings, Howard Rosenstein, Eric Zivot. Plays at 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, at 8 p.m. Thursday and at 2 p.m. Saturday. Closes Saturday. Tickets $5-$22. 1615 Vine St. (213) 410-1062.