Twelfth Night: Wall Street
nytheatre.com review by J. Scott Reynolds
February 23, 2012
Performing Shakespeare on a shoestring is one of the great high-wire acts of the theater. It is thrilling to see a masterpiece given its due through sheer imagination and skill, and when the attempt isn’t entirely successful, a few strong performances that allow characters and language to emerge in their unfiltered glory can make for a soft landing (great material has that advantage).
The title of Twelfth Night: Wall Street, co-produced by Co-Op Theatre East and Looking Glass Theatre (New York), suggests less of a playing to strength than might be hoped for under a bare bones approach. Conceptual re-interpretations of classics tend to lean more heavily on the look of a production, and are commonplace enough that they have become the province of more established theaters with ampler design budgets. That isn’t to say that old material can’t be revamped through other means, but Twelfth Night: Wall Street mostly adheres to convention. Arraying sumptuous high-end furniture on an unpainted black box stage, director Casey Cleverly relies heavily on the trappings of privilege to frog march Twelfth Night through a world of pampered, scheming elites right out of an Oliver Stone movie.
Flipping the original’s first and second scenes, this version opens with a shadow image of a passenger jet (on a handsome, translucent backdrop designed by Michael Simmons) that a pilot’s voiceover tells us is going to make an emergency landing. We then see a high-heeled, shrill debutante named Viola (Dana Hunter) washed up on what are presumably the banks of the Hudson, protesting “And what should I do in Manhatta?” (a substitute for Shakespeare’s “Illyria”). The possible death of her brother is a blip in her miffed self-preoccupation, and on learning of a marriageable Duke in the area named Orsino (who the program informs us is “the head of Orsino and Partners”), she determines to infiltrate his inner circle in the guise of a young man and eventually win his heart as a woman. Orsino, played against gender by Amanda Renee Baker, is a chilly replica of a Wall Street titan from thirty years ago: Clad in a three-piece suit, WASP-ishly formal, and prone to long, calculating gazes while swirling his bourbon. For him, the music that is “the food of love” is the sounding bell for the New York Stock Exchange, and any of Shakespeare’s monetary metaphors are accompanied by glances at a literal portfolio tucked under his arm. Though unclear from Baker’s icy delivery of his lines that he is passionate for anything but his put options, Orsino says he is enamored with and committed to wooing one Olivia, who in mourning for a deceased brother has declared a seven-year moratorium on unveiled public appearances (much less romantic entanglements). Viola, having won Orsino’s confidence in a close-cropped wig as “Cesario,” is tasked with presenting Olivia a ring and offer of her boss’s devotion. Matters become complicated when Olivia is seized with passion for the boy she believes Viola to be. As in most of Shakespeare’s comedies, things eventually work themselves out, but only after all appears lost and impossibly upended. In director Cleverly’s rendering of the play, an added twist on a certain character’s identity provides an altered happy ending for Viola. Rather than marriage to a wealthy provider, her undaunted maneuverings in a man’s world ultimately earn her respect and a place at the table within that world.
There is nothing particularly objectionable about the skewed ending, but its impact is unavoidably academic in a play whose opening lines compare the allure of romantic love to “the sweet sound / that breathes upon a bank of violets,” and whose characters go to humiliating lengths to attain it. Resolution is to be had through the attainment or non-attainment of a character’s ends (and Twelfth Night has both winners and losers), not by substituting another good for the desired one and directing a lead actor to smile about it. True, Hunter endeavors to present Viola as a wily gold-digger rather than love-struck, but the lines Shakespeare requires her to speak militate against it.
And if the final point is that a woman’s greatest reward is independence and equality, it’s not clear how scattershot derision of wealth and privilege contribute to that conclusion. There is room in Shakespeare’s text to explore acquisitiveness, particularly in Orsino, who is unwilling to contemplate failure in his quest for Olivia’s hand. In rebuffing the possibility when raised by Viola, he describes a yearning that is insatiable: “But mine is all as hungry as the sea/ And can digest as much.“ The implied obsession and fear of failure in Orsino’s character has far more in common with the people who toil long hours in the unforgiving world of Wall Street than the stolid stereotype imposed on Ms. Baker, who otherwise shows the training and intelligence to delve more deeply. Shakespeare’s urbane Olivia likewise gets the shallow treatment. Played by Haleigh Ciel in steep-heeled kneeboots and tight leather pants (a striking look provided here and elsewhere by costume designer Lizzie Elkins), Olivia delivers her lines with Wagnerian declamations while brushing the air with gestures more reminiscent of an aging Gloria Swanson than a smitten young woman, a choice the program attempts to explain away by describing her as a “fashion heiress”; in other words, someone who presumably inhabits a bubble within a bubble, doubly worthy of ridicule. Another instance where the production contents itself with a signpost rather than a scalpel. Ciel’s voice and physical ease show a depth to her training and emotional reserves. She and the role as written deserve more breathing room.
There are bright spots in this production, particularly in its famously show-stealing sub-plots. The dour Malvolio is played by Charles Hinshaw with a fragile self-regard that, when given a boost by the forged billet-doux that mimics Olivia’s handwriting, provides a moment of genuine delight as he pats disbelievingly at the contours of his own grin. His capacity to rear on a dime from a forlorn sulk to a hissing cobra adds adrenaline to a moment of confrontation later in the play. That this portrait of self-defeat is both endearing and troubling suggests an actor with a sophisticated feel for character and promise of greater things to come. Myles Kenyon Rowland brings an affectingly earnest tenacity to the loyal, unappreciated Antonio. Tyrus Holden as Andrew Aguecheek (the “Sir” is dropped in this production, which depicts him as a bohemian hanger-on to Michael Rehse’s Toby Belch), contributes some of the play’s funnier moments as his eyes alternately scrunch with confusion or light up with surprise at the perceived profundity of his own utterances. To Cleverly’s credit, the play’s conceptual straightjacket is loose enough to allow moments like these to shine.