Adapting well-known plays can be a hard proposition, and the challenges seem to increase with every subsequent production. Without any radical new direction, a production can feel like a pointless re-hash, but if too much is changed, the play’s most important qualities are lost. The clash between reinvention and traditionalism is alive and well in Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of “Twelfth Night,” and even after the final bow, the battle is left unresolved. By the end of the night the play’s own identity crisis overshadows any tale of mistaken identities in Illyria.
“Twelfth Night” is one of Shakespeare’s most recognizable and accessible plays. If you haven’t read it in school or seen it on stage, you probably have seen its basic plot adapted somewhere in pop culture (“She’s the Man” is an example.) After a shipwreck separates twin siblings Viola (Grace Morrison) and Sebastian (Zach Fifer), Viola disguises herself as a boy and works for Duke Orsino (A.K. Murtadha). As the disguised Viola helps Orsino woo the countess Olivia (Kelsey Rainwater), a messy love triangle forms — Viola loves Orsino, Orsino loves Olivia, and Olivia loves Viola. Meanwhile, Olivia’s raucous uncle Sir Toby Belch (Kenajuan Bentley) and witty gentlewoman Maria (Susanna Florence) play an increasingly elaborate series of pranks on the humorless steward Malvolio (David Andrew McDonald.)
In his attempts to offer a fresh interpretation of this classic play, director Larry Carpenter makes some shrewd initial decisions. The play’s action is moved to early 19th century New Orleans. This move occasionally re-contextualizes the plot events, but the most noticeable (and successful) byproducts of the setting are more aesthetic than substantive. G.W. Mercier designed the gorgeous set and costumes, and no matter what is going on onstage this production is always fun to look at. Carpenter also leans into the show’s musical elements, but the show’s frequent vocal interludes turn quickly from refreshing to tiring.
Carpenter’s direction gets significantly more muddled in his handling of tone. Without any obvious agenda, the production vacillates between a subdued, straight-laced presentation and a broad farce, with the latter direction being the most consistently successful. When the cast indulges in slapstick, the play crackles with an appealing energy, but too many plot-driven scenes feel perfunctory, even dour. The personality and intrigue of the play’s new setting rarely seeps into the stiflingly traditional staging. Perhaps most egregiously, none of the relationships communicate the sexual tension and airy wit that makes “Twelfth Night” one of Shakespeare’s most delightful works.
The actors that fare best give the most comically exaggerated performances. McDonald’s Malvolio is ridiculous in the best way, and his interpretation possesses a sense of play that the rest of the production sorely needs. As Sir Toby’s friend Andrew Aguecheek, Conner Marx proves himself to be a gifted physical comedian. His goofy, exaggerated performance cuts through the density of the script and brings a visceral liveliness to every scene he is in. Both McDonald and Marx anchor this production’s funniest and most pleasurable scenes. Ironically, this iteration of “Twelfth Night” is a play about lost identities that lacks an identity itself, and I am not sure these two performances help the play come any closer to a coherent interpretation. Nobody in this production manages to reinvent the wheel, but at least some are kind enough to provide a fun spin.