Imagine that it's the depths of winter -- Jan. 6, let's say. Outside, the weather is dark and dreary; it's been raining every day. So you turn on the TV, and commercials invite you to escape the chilly gloom by embarking on a leisurely cruise through the Greek isles.
Got the picture? Now take that premise and step back 400 years, and you're primed for Twelfth Night.
Shakespeare's bright winter comedy is set in lyrical Illyria, where the sun it shineth every day and wintry woes can be forgotten. In addition to his usual bag of comedic tricks (shipwrecked twins, mistaken identity, love at first sight) Shakespeare here adds a new element: All these young lovers are graced with sadness. Yet all these lighthearted romantic entanglements are incidental to the play's greatness. Twelfth Night is Shakespeare's supreme comedy because it also contains a keen battle of wills, a struggle as profound as anything you'll find in Hamlet or King Lear.
Sir Toby Belch is the man who came to dinner, the mooching wastrel uncle of the long-suffering Olivia. But he is also a lover of life. As such, he is the antithesis of his niece's churlish steward, Malvolio, a humorless prig who cannot laugh or even smile. Because Malvolio loathes what he cannot understand ("You are idle shallow things; I am not of your element"), his menacing presence threatens Sir Toby's very existence. The clash between these opposing poles is at the core of Twelfth Night.
There's no doubting whose side Shakespeare is on. Although he wrote 37 comedies, histories and tragedies, this is the only play to which he affixed a subtitle: Twelfth Night; or, What You Will. The main title refers to the play's presumed first performance on Jan. 6, 1601, the 12th night after Christmas, which marked the end of the holiday festivities. But that subtitle -- What You Will -- is essential to appreciating the play's enduring immediacy.
Why, the Bard ponders, is it so difficult to simply "live and let live"? Why are there always bullies who feel compelled to impose their morality on others? As the slave to his own excesses, Sir Toby is hardly a character to be emulated. Yet he nails Malvolio to the wall when he asks, "Does thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?"
Sir Toby and his carousing cronies scheme to humiliate their nemesis. But, typical of Shakespeare's brilliance, Malvolio is not merely a straw dog. As richly nuanced as Dickens' Ebenezer Scrooge, he is a man to be feared, and Shakespeare had cause to fear him. Malvolio's final line, "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you," is typical of the Bard's prescience. Sixty years after this play was written, the puritanical Oliver Cromwell closed the theaters in London. But then, there have always been fearsome, humorless people eager to shut down theaters.
Americans love to root for the underdog, and audiences sometimes tend to bestow more sympathy on the misbegotten Malvolio than Shakespeare perhaps intended. At the opening-night performance of this production, there were moments late in Act 2 when Todd Gillenardo's Malvolio began to play on the audience's sympathy. But every time the character neared the slippery precipice of sentiment, the actor instinctively pulled back. Gillenardo is to be commended for rejecting affection.
In fact, everyone at Shakespeare St. Louis is to be commended. This is a spirited Twelfth Night, handsomely costumed and energetically played. (Special kudos to Walter Marts for making Fabian, perhaps the most expendable character in all Shakespeare, seem as if he belongs.) Despite the production's emphasis on crowd-pleasing farce, the Bard's sober message still shines through. That message is simply this: In a struggle between life and death, even when "the rain, it raineth every day," ultimately, life will prevail.