Thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.
— Feste, the clown, to Malvolio
Everything exhilaratingly and extravagantly comes up roses in director Rebecca Taichman’s vision of “Twelfth Night,” now playing through Sunday, March 29, at McCarter Theater. Taichman is abetted by set designer Riccardo Hernandez, who has created an expressionistic world that evolves from an abstracted terrain of icey blues and greens to a rose garden nurtured as much by pretense as it is by passion. As it turns out, the setting becomes an integrated partner in this outstanding production adding, as it does, a witty and often comical aesthetic.
Every now and then there is that rare confluence of conception, acting, directing, design and stage craft that marks a production as sheer bliss. This is what “Twelfth Night” is providing for the next few weeks and firmly disproving the general consensus that this is one of William Shakespeare’s weaker plays. A co-production between McCarter and the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, DC, Taichman has addressed the play’s outrageously convoluted plotting and re-considered the bountiful mix of tomfoolery and romance from a distinctly sensual, sexual, and psychologically inverted perspective. But don’t worry, as it is suitable for the whole family.
Here is a disarmingly daring staging in which the many aspects of sexual identity are allowed to take precedence over the tomfoolery. That’s a good thing for those of us who are more apt to wince rather than welcome the antics of the secondary characters. Just as the bard cleverly considered the hidden transvestite in us in this perceptive comedy, Taichman and her extraordinary ensemble have embraced the multi-layered story in ways that are as dazzling as they are defining.
Just to refresh your memory: The courting of wealthy and titled Lady Olivia by the personable but dull Duke Orsino of Illyria becomes complicated by the arrival of Viola, a young girl who masquerades as a page to the duped Duke after a traumatic separation from her twin Sebastian during a violent storm at sea. Viola unwittingly falls in love with the Duke only to discover that Olivia has fallen head over heels in love with her as Cesario, the page. The arrival of look-alike Sebastian to Ilyria, who, instantly smitten with ardor upon seeing the fair Olivia, creates a series of comical burlesque encounters that provide a stage for “What You Will.”
If Shakespeare’s delightful crew of secondary characters is usually encouraged to run amuck in order to confuse us as well as the lovers, they suddenly seem to have inherited an importance and dramatic weight that is rarely considered or conceived. Arguably strained and incredulous, the story, nevertheless, seems to benefit from Taichman’s tempered touch. This is not to imply that the slapstick has been forfeited for the sake of the overriding sentiments that pervade the action. Those who savor silliness will also be rewarded.
That suave sentimentalist, Duke Orsino, is winningly played by the virile, romantically inclined Christopher Innvar. Traditionally the Duke is remembered best for his brief yearnings for the love of Lady Olivia (Veanne Cox). Here, Innvar is mostly troubled by his attraction to Viola/Cesario (Rebecca Brooksher), an issue, a cornerstone, and a more deliberated dimension to his conflicted personality. It is no small feat that Brooksher makes as good an impression as a woman as she does in the guise of a man. Her sweet but commanding acting style is a cause for celebration. As Sebastian, Kevin Isola may not get as much stage time as her twin but he gives us a robust account of an easily provoked and more easily infatuated young man.
As central as are situations that fuel the Viola/Cesario predicament, it is Olivia who dominates the production. While Cox’s flair for comedy has brightened many plays and musicals on and off Broadway, I can’t recall that she has ever been more comically seductive as she is as the bedazzled Olivia. She is outright hilarious in the scene in which she and Viola/Cesario have found themselves prostrated in increments out of a sense of courtesy. In the manner of Scarlett O’Hara, Cox finds more humorous ways than you can imagine swirling and sashaying around Ilyria in the four breathtaking gowns — black, lime green, peach and white — designed by Miranda Hoffman.
Most happily, the antics appear organic to the comic artistry displayed by Rick Foucheux, as the wine-guzzling, cigar-chomping, and ever-belching Sir Toby Belch and Tom Story, as his dim-witted sidekick Sir Andrew Aguecheek. But what a wonderful treat it is to see distinguished theater veteran Ted van Griethuysen bring the kind of delectably arrogant countenance to the role of the maligned “affectionate ass,” Malvolio, as he succumbs to the unkind plot machinations as devised by the clever servant Maria, robustly played by Nancy Robinette. How wonderful it is that van Griethuysen accomplishes what so many who undertake the role don’t — to win our pity even if that misguided stuffed shirt with yellow stockings attempts to ride his bike.
Taichman, who was at the helm of the recently presented Shakespeare Theater production of the play, has taken what is naturally strained and incredulous in Shakespeare to heart. Keeping up with Shakespeare’s mixture of parody and poignancy is not an easy task for any director, seasoned or otherwise. This production is a triumph for her as much as it is for “Twelfth Night.”
"Twelfth Night," McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Through Sunday, March 29. Shakespeare comedy. $15 to $55. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.