The novelist and critic Angela Carter once mused that it’s hard to imagine being killed by too much fun: “Death by tickling, perhaps.”
Carter was distinguishing among ‘fun,’ ‘pleasure’ and ‘delight.’ Fun, she writes, is different from pleasure because pleasure has overtones of the sensual – and therefore, the possibly dangerous.
Fun is also different from delight, “a more cerebral and elevated concept.” Delight means something in the world has been illuminated – and lights us up as well.
Carter concludes that ‘fun’ is simply pleasure that involves neither the conscience nor the intellect. Fun is fancy free. Which is why many people feel “it must be inherently trivial.”
Determinedly trivial fun is what’s served up eagerly by director Kevin Moriarty in his current production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the Dallas Theater Center. The show is occasionally amusing, but there’s good reason it’s been chopped down to 90 minutes without an intermission. Like tickling, this kind of fun eventually wears out.
Twelfth Night is Moriarty’s first effort with a great Shakespeare rom-com since he staged A Midsummer Night’s Dream to inaugurate the Wyly Theatre ten years ago. A decade on, and the moment we set eyes on set designer Anna Louizos’ marvelously realized, high-end resort condo for Twelfth Night, it’s plain the director’s determination to keep Shakespeare more accessible and enforcedly contemporary – at all costs – remains undimmed.
In interviews, Moriarty has expressed a fear of being boring. Yet he’s employed the same methods with Shakespeare for ten years now: stripping down the script, using a modern setting, arming actors with squirt guns, adding pop songs (this time, it’s Jill Scott, Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder filling in), encouraging singalongs with the audience and having actors run through the aisles to delight us because, look, there’s someone actually running through the aisles – and not to a restroom.
In all this, it seems Moriarty is more afraid of the stillness and silence that can come with true emotion – or he’s wary of just Shakespeare’s words, Shakespeare’s wisdom and humor, all of it simply and directly delivered by talented actors: the very things audiences might have come to experience. This time around, all that’s missing from Moriarty’s go-to props and gambits is the celebratory balloon or confetti drop at the end. We’ll return to that confetti-less finale later: It actually reflects one of the director’s most beguiling takes on Twelfth Night.
Viola (Delphi Borich) is shipwrecked and lost on the Adriatic seashore, so she asks some passing strangers, “What country, friends, is this?” Their reply: “This is Illyria, lady.” But we know the real answer: “It’s the beach on Padre Island, babe.” The cut-off shorts, the swaying palm trees, the young people dancing to an onstage cover band playing Prince’s ‘Let’s Go Crazy’: All we need are some frat boys lighting up some blunts.
The point – as it was with Shakespeare – is setting Twelfth Night in some relaxed and transported Other Place, a vacation from the workaday. Set designer Anna Louizos and costumer Mari Taylor have worked to make this Beach Blanket Shakespeare as convincing as a plastic lawn chair, a well-stocked beer cooler and a happy string of party lights.
If only that much attention had gone into rooting the characters as real, conflicted or engaging, we might feel something was at stake. Something might delight and illuminate.
To take a few examples: Tiffany Solano DeSena plays Olivia, the countess in charge of this particular Margaritaville. The Lady Olivia is in mourning over the double loss of her father and brother. But because her sorrow leads her to reject the romantic overtures of Duke Orsino, Olivia is repeatedly described as heartless, even cruel – primarily by Orsino.
And that’s primarily how DeSena plays her – and not for laughs. Or depths. Her servants rightly mock Olivia’s melancholy retreat from life – because life itself is the cure for melancholy. And the countess even good-naturedly defends their mocking jests to her sour major domo, Malvolio, who is her servants’ frequent target:
To be generous,
guiltless and of free disposition, is to take those
things for bird-bolts that you deem cannon-bullets:
there is no slander in an allowed fool, though he do
nothing but rail.
But rarely do we sense this attitude elsewhere. Nor do we sense that, perhaps, persistently wooing Olivia might actually be insensitive on Orsino’s part: She’s faced a lot of death recently. Mostly, she’s just imperious.
Meanwhile, David Matranga plays Orsino as pretty much your standard, cool dude – and not, as Shakespeare intends from his opening lines – a silly, over-privileged stud swooning around, rhapsodizing about love rather than actually courting an actual woman.
DeSena’s off-putting Olivia punches a hole in the story’s romantic logic. She becomes smitten by Viola, who – as Shakespeare’s heroines are wont to do – has secretly disguised herself as a male servant to survive in this new land. So when Viola’s twin brother Sebastian (Christopher Llewyn Ramirez) shows up, not drowned but miraculously alive, he inadvertently fools Olivia. She believes him to be Viola — he’s that rather reserved, even cagey servant she just met who’s now suddenly receptive to her amorous intentions.
That rapturous sexual thawing by Olivia is a scene that the great Mark Rylance – when he played the countess in the Globe Theatre production – transformed into one of the play’s emotional pivot points and an illuminating comic turn. Here, DeSena’s amorous reaction to Viola/Sebastian is so tepid, you might miss it.
As a result, their eventual love doesn’t feel like much cause for joy. Congratulations, Sebastian, you’ve just won the heart of a somewhat chilly contessa. Good luck with that.
Or consider the officious Malvolio. Alex Organ has a real talent for playing monsters (Frankenstein, Othello), and he easily adds Malvolio’s puffed-up prickliness to his repertoire. Malvolio despises the party-loving spongers at Olivia’s house: Toby Belch (Liz Mikel) and Andrew Aguecheek (Blake Hackler). They return fire by pranking him into believing the Lady Olivia is secretly in love with him.
‘Fun,’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has its origins in the hoax. There can be an element of ridicule in ‘fun’ – we ‘poke fun.’ Which is why audiences often feel sorry for Malvolio by the end: He’s the butt of what can seem some rather mean-spirited mockery, a case of humor going too far by messing with a person’s vulnerability. Organ plays Malvolio with the stiff physicality and bristling energy of John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty. But for the most part, his Malvolio is just a crank. With Fawlty, there’s real frustration and pathos powering his rage. He knows he’ll never escape the second-rate hotel he’s stuck running.
Here, we never truly feel why Organ’s Malvolio would grasp at Lady Olivia’s love so hungrily. So kudos to Moriarty for creating the one, cleverly invented scene that hints at Malvolio’s inner simmer: He’s forced to pick up after the party boys. He notices the forged love letter from Olivia that triggers the prank because he’s been stuck with collecting the beer bottles and trash left all over the beach. That’s our only glimpse of why Malvolio might resent Belch and Aguecheek: They pile on his class-based indignities. Otherwise, he’s just a spoilsport.
Go through the other roles in Twelfth Night and repeatedly subtract these kinds of insights and motivations, and the real, comic humanity Shakespeare puts on display becomes almost skeletal. Ultimately, the characters seem to exist to trigger the next plot device.
That’s partly because Moriarty’s cut out any chunk of text he found inconvenient. Which – surprisingly – even includes flat-out removing Feste, one of Shakespeare’s iconic fools. Several of Feste’s greatest lines remain like faint echoes, parceled out among the onstage musicians, including his famously wistful song, ‘The Wind and the Rain.’
But Shakespeare’s fools, like Feste, are more than just clowns. They’re frequently a play’s reality principle. Without that clear-eyed figure embodied here – sometimes joining in the antics, sometimes standing apart warily – the carnival spirit runs free, weightless and pointless: As Feste sings, when he was a child, “a foolish thing was but a toy.” Precisely. This is a toy-like Twelfth Night.
In place of all these missing emotions, Moriarty inserts pop songs – taking his cue, as many directors have, from Shakespeare’s famous opening line: “If music be the food of love, play on.” But here, the songs aren’t so much additions to – amplifying Shakespeare’s intent – they’re substitutions for. Or they’re attempts at substitution, at any rate. When Liz Mikel’s ‘Aunt’ Toby Belch is admonished for being drunk, she responds with outrage and with Amy Winehouse’s ‘Rehab.’
Apparently, no one’s paid attention to the song’s defiant but also self-pitying tone and lyrics:
I don’t ever want to drink again
I just, oh, I just need a friend
I’m not gonna spend ten weeks
Have everyone think I’m on the mend
And it’s not just my pride
It’s just till these tears have dried.
I know, I know. I sound like the killjoy Malvolio, frowning with disapproval. It’s not that Moriarty’s Twelfth Night is without its real pleasures. Almost anything with Blake Hackler in it is worth watching – even when he has been oddly cast, as he has been as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. It’s odd because the baseline joke with Aguecheek is that he’s too old, timid and sickly to be taken seriously as a potential husband for Olivia. It’s only Toby Belch who encourages his hopeless courtship; that way, Aguecheek will continue underwriting Toby’s drinking tab. Toby goads Aguecheek into challenging Viola-in-drag to a duel in order to impress Olivia with his courage and scare off the competition – even as this Aguecheek is too puny or frightened to succeed in such a face-off.
With Hackler, this entire comic set-up is seriously shifted because he’s comparatively young and vigorous. Instead of a foolish old feeb, his Sir Andrew is a whirligig of gleeful, clueless energy. When asked to display his dancing skill, Hackler kicks up his heels in delight – like a child showing off how high he can jump. His Aguecheek may be timid but he’s also uncontrollably impulsive – again, like a child. Hackler is the one actor here who should scamper through the audience because he’s the one who can get a laugh. He uses his awkward collisions with seated theatergoers as further revelations of Sir Andrew’s spirited idiocy.
So the comic shift here is that Hackler’s Aguecheek is clearly a poor choice as a possible husband for Olivia – not because he’s old or sickly but because he’s played as stereotypically ‘gay’: dapper, flighty, boyish, sulky and not a “manly” fighter.
While the main characters are like this – they lack conflicting impulses or emotional detail – that’s not the case, interestingly enough, with the rather minor figure of Antonio, the sailor who rescues Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother. Antonio assumes a much larger, more nuanced role because Moriarty has strongly emphasized the homoeroticism in Twelfth Night. He’s hardly the first director to do so: That Old Globe production with Mark Rylance had an all-male cast, just as Shakespeare’s original Twelfth Night did. Even without such a wholesale casting switch, the fluid sexuality in Shakespeare’s comedy is built in: When Orsino tells his new manservant, Viola, to take his romantic appeals to Olivia, the duke is disturbed by how easily his affections seem to shift from their intended female target to Viola, this rather attractive young ‘lad’ he’s just hired.
But Moriarty goes even further by highlighting the electric connection between Sebastian and Antonio. At last, there’s a little rom in this rom-com. Sebastian never actually expresses any erotic or amorous attraction toward Antonio: He offers the formulas of gratitude and respect (“I perceive in you so excellent a touch of modesty”). But Antonio speaks more emphatically, with greater longing: “If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant.” And they kiss – an action not indicated in the text. Nonetheless, it’s a kiss that has more tenderness in it (on Antonio’s side at least) than all the other wooing going on.
And this leads to one of the few truly compelling moments in the whole DTC Twelfth Night. Antonio is arrested by the Duke’s men. He promptly asks the friend he thinks is Sebastian for help – lend him some money for bail. But it’s Viola-in-disguise, not Sebastian, he’s talking to. So she, bewildered, declines the request. The moment feels genuine because Ace Anderson does something rare here: He plays two emotional notes simultaneously. He’s both angry and tearfully hurt. To him, Viola’s refusal is not simply unkind or disappointing, it’s like a rejection from a lover at the worst possible moment, as if she or he were saying, “You’re going to jail and I’m breaking up with you, but hey, none of this really involves me.”
Even in this brief moment, Anderson’s Antonio achieves such sympathetic appeal, such human reality that, not long afterwards, when Malvolio returns all pouty and sad about how his own mixed-up, wished-for romance turned out – we barely notice him as he sulks all around the theater.
At this moment – as the various other couples unite or re-unite – the musicians (KJ Gray, Nicholas Rothouse, Nathan Burke) perform Feste’s ‘The Wind and the Rain’ because the fun of this little Mardi Gras is now over: “But that’s all one, our play is done.”
Sober reality re-asserts itself – with its newfound couples but also its unavoidable demands.
And at this fading moment, as all the erotic and alcoholic ‘fun’ recedes like the sun, Anderson remains and does very little. Yet he still holds our rapt attention. He conveys a man seriously, silently thinking, pondering what it is that he feels and what he’s lost – with Sebastian, his would-be love, now gone.
In quiet contemplation, Anderson smokes a cigarette, looks at the dark sky. He’s just an actor – alone onstage – listening to Shakespeare’s words being sung.
Yet, somehow, he’s not boring.