Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Pearl’s Twelfth Night

It is one of Shakespeare’s most enduring plays, but one of his most frustrating titles. It is generally accepted that the Twelfth Night is an allusion to the Feast of the Epiphany (the Twelfth Day of Christmas). Some suggest it refers directly to the time of year in which the play is set, pointing to a rather drunken rendition of the traditional carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Others interpret it metaphorically, pointing to an old English tradition of mischievous masquerading on the feast day, including cross-dressing, which definitely plays a role in Twelfth Night. Also featuring mistaken identity, separated twins, true love, and wild revelry, it is clear why Twelfth Night (Or What You Will) remains one of the bard’s most entertaining comedies in the Pearl Theatre Company’s new production, which opened last night.

Precisely where or when the kingdom of Illyria exists is a bit vague, but young shipwrecked Viola washes up on its shore. Assuming her twin brother Sebastian is lost to the sea, she disguises herself as a man and enters the service of the local nobleman, Duke Orsino, intending to live an essentially cloistered life (but in the company of men). Orsino pines for the Lady Olivia, who herself mourns the death of a brother. One of Viola, a.k.a. Cesario’s first assignments for the Duke is to woo Olivia on his behalf. Singing Orsino’s praises comes easy to Viola, since she has fallen in love with the Duke. Unfortunately, instead of winning the Lady’s heart for the Duke, she falls in love with his page, Cesario. Then things get complicated.

Twelfth Night has romance and brisk wordplay, but it also has a dark undercurrent, as when Olivia’s wastrel uncle Sir Toby Belch and his cronies entrap Malvolio, her dour steward, in a surprisingly cruel prank. Naturally, it quickly spirals out of control. Feste, the minstrel fool, has a particularly pronounced mean streak, which Sean McNall’s interpretation oddly seems to minimize.

Regardless, Viola is the make-or-break role in the play. She is essentially Shakespeare’s version of the endearing, plucky tomboy archetype, both sensitive and resilient (sort of like Jo from Little Women). If the audience pulls for her, the entire play pulls together. Fortunately, Ali Ahn perfectly captures Viola’s depth of feeling and innocent likability without coming across as overly cute or saccharine, thereby firmly establishing the play’s rooting interest. (While Joseph Midyett is not exactly a dead-ringer for Viola as Sebastian, he brings enough energy to the part to suspend disbelief.)

Committed to the classic repertoire, the Pearl plays it straight in their staging. However, given the play’s indeterminate time, their costumes seem to mix elements of classical, Elizabethan, and early Twentieth Century dress. With a solid cast anchored by Ahn’s excellent performance, their Twelfth Night is scrupulously respectful of Shakespeare’s text, but thoroughly entertaining.

(Photo credit: Luke Redmond.)