Let's get to the good news first. The Performing Arts Department at Washington University is presenting a breathtakingly beautiful production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. As designed by Christopher Pickart, the set is sumptuous in its simplicity. There's nothing much here -- except that to gaze upon it is to know that you have intruded upon an enchanted world. Much of the upstage area is given over to a pool filled with water that ever changes its colors (now royal blue, now turquoise). A similar pool was the hallmark of a recent Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center. But this pool is no mere rip-off. It is here for a specific reason that far exceeds décor. In addition to providing a soothing, subtle presence, it forces the play's action downstage, thus helping both actor and audience to navigate the intricacies of Shakespeare's tale.
Pickart's set has been gorgeously and wisely lit by David Vogel. For once, the shipwreck at sea actually looks like a shipwreck. And when the production wants to clarify the action by showing us Olivia in mourning for her brother, Vogel's evocative lighting sweeps us into a magnificent chapel.
Director Henry Schvey has filled this wondrously visual world with intriguing touches. How savvy it is, for instance, to preface the evening with an early, unexpected appearance by Feste, the clown (an engaging Nick Choksi). In Shakespeare's text, Feste does not appear until Act 2. But everything is more accessible when he's around. Best that we meet him early on. Here is another intriguing touch, and problem solved: How to make sense of Fabian, that extraneous servant who appears from nowhere and contributes so little -- yet is always hanging around? In this production, Fabian isn't a he; he's a she. As played by the fetching Pirronne Yousefzadeh, Fabian's presence is always welcome, regardless of how superfluous she is to the action.
Although Bonnie Kruger's lavish costumes seem to exist in a world all their own (and I'm not sure what that world is), they certainly delight the eye. When, late in the evening, the grieving Olivia announces, "Methinks it's time to smile again," her new gown is so bedecked with light-reflecting spangles that it smiles for her.
So much imagination has been invested here that I almost hate to pose one lingering quandary: Why isn't this production funnier? The opening-night audience was attentive and respectful. But, in Act 1 especially, they simply did not laugh. Why not?
Here's one possible explanation. Much attention has been given here to Viola (Emily Madison) and to her masquerading courtship of Olivia (Robin Kacyn). It makes total sense that a college production should emphasize the young lovers, and indeed both actresses are certainly charming. But just because Viola and Olivia are the largest roles doesn't mean that they're the leading roles. The meat and the marrow of this play resides not in its lighthearted romantic entanglements, not in its shipwrecked twins, mistaken identity and love at first sight but in the epic battle of wills between the lusty Sir Toby Belch and the baleful Malvolio. If, as occurs here, you relegate that clash of titans to secondary importance, if you treat these two great archetypes of life and death as a mere extension of the fairytale romances, the play will lose its focus.
Neither actor seems to be aware of the high-stakes life-and-death battle in which he is engaged. Although it's unfortunate that Barrett Graves' Malvolio is more peevish than menacing, it's not all his fault. In his unfortunate pageboy wig, Graves looks and sounds like the ever-affable Ken Burns -- and there's nothing very threatening about that. Wigs can be replaced. But as Sir Toby, Sam Reiff-Pasarew is guilty of a cardinal acting sin: He insists on playing to the audience. Rather than earn his laughs, he asks for them, with the result that the audience resists him.
So, ultimately, the laughs aren't there. But of course the text is. Happily, Twelfth Night ends as it began, with Feste bathed in glorious sunlight, oxymoronically reminding the audience that "the rain, it raineth every day." He then sings the song's final verse, which reassures us that everyone onstage will "strive to please you every day." On balance, this attractive student production -- enhanced and illuminated by a set and lighting worthy of the Festival Theater at Stratford, Ontario -- exceeds its strivings.