Finding the Beating Heart of a Comedy
The Mad and Merry Theatre Company, Gene Frankel Theatre, New York, N.Y.
Friday, December 7, 2012, back row of box theater
Directed by Beth Pollack
Viola (Madeline Sayet) as Cesario with Orsino (Adam Hale). Photo by The Mad and Merry Theatre Company.
The Mad and Merry Theatre Company, according to its mission statement, “seeks to investigate and relate the ideas and themes living in theatrical works throughout time. Intellectual curiosity motivates the company in all [its] artistic endeavors.” That’s all good, but, as this is Shakespeare, let’s make sure we have some fun along the way.
Exhibit A, the company’s production of Twelfth Night, played against sheer green curtains through which you can see shapes of trees, and costumed in an incongruous 50ish/modernish style. The setting is immaterial to the matter, though, as director Beth Pollack seems intent on giving us an Ibsenian Twelfth Night, emphasizing the serious aspects of Shakespeare’s script. But the production found its beating heart when it allowed the play’s humor and charm to resurface.
Fortunately, charm is at the production’s center in the person of Madeline Sayet (the company’s artistic director) playing Viola. This Viola approaches life as a sport, even after finding herself abandoned in a strange land. She chooses to make the wake of misfortune a new path, relying on her intelligence, courage, and patience (i.e., time), and she squeezes as much happiness as she can out of her circumstances.
She pines for Orsino (the handsomely confident Adam Hale), but she accepts the contentment of at least being in his presence, even if her love remains unrequited. Still, she fully understands the fire she’s playing with. Sayet makes Viola’s account of her fictional sister deeply reflective, but yet she herself is willing to wait, smiling at grief like patience on a monument until time unties the knot she’s in. Delivering her willow cabin speech to Olivia, Sayet’s Viola almost explodes with her own pent-up passion, her thoughts clearly on someone other than the woman before her even as she cries out “Olivia!” Realizing she’s wandered off, Viola gathers herself back into her Cesario persona. “But you should pity me,” she says awkwardly. “You might do much,” replies the now-smitten Olivia (Sydney Angel).
Olivia’s growing infatuation with Cesario leads to another singular moment for Sayet’s Viola. When Olivia sends her the ring via Malvolio, Viola delivers the opening line of her soliloquy, “Fortune forbid my outside have not charmed her,” cavalierly as a self-deprecating joke, almost boyish in its wink-wink, nudge-nudge manner (Viola does seem more man than woman here). It’s only after scanning that thought that she realizes she has, indeed, charmed Olivia.
More heart and humor comes from the quartet of pranking partiers: Toby Belch (Michael Deely), Maria (Kristin McCarthy Parker), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jonathan William Minton), and Fabian (Mikaal Bates), along with Feste (CJ Leede). Deely plays drunk sublimely, and though this Toby is something of a scoundrel, he seems mostly driven by the desire for drink and easy living, for he has a healthy respect for others, as long as they do not interfere with these aims. He also knows he has the love of a good woman. Parker’s Maria is a revelatory performance. A real “giant,” she physically towers over the others, but she also bears herself with an easy authority the other characters look up to. Touches of physical affection pass between Maria and Toby throughout the play, and the chambermaid has a relaxed relationship with her mistress, Olivia, one of mutual trust—which, in another production, could be cause for jealousy in Malvolio (in this production, Christina Liang plays Olivia’s steward in a steady state of intense meanness with zilch humanity).
Minton (my son) plays Aguecheek with substantial soul beneath his foolishness but manages to keep the character funny. “I was adored once,” Minton speaks sincerely, with a haunting sadness revealing a touch of loneliness. Still, he is a silly man. He writes down key phrases he hears in his ever-present notebook, and Minton finds a funny connection between Aguecheek’s learning the meaning of “accost” in his first scene with Toby and Maria, and later hearing Fabian use the same term as he and Toby gull him into challenging the duke’s messenger. This Aguecheek is genuinely worried about his dwindling finances, and he sees, early, the truth in Olivia’s attitude toward him. Nevertheless, he gives in to Toby’s entreaties out of admiration for him and his standing.
This leads to an interesting twist on Toby’s last line in the play, answering Aguecheek’s offer to assist him to the surgeon for the hurt they’ve received at the hands of Sebastian, the supposed Cesario. What on paper reads as an insult—“Will you help? An ass-head and a coxcomb and a knave, a thin-faced knave, a gull!”—Deely turns around, creating a moment of affection keyed on the line’s opening question: “Will you help?” Deely’s Toby says this with some surprise, for the man he has so shamelessly abused remains his devoted friend. The rest of the line he imbues with some self-reflection. Is not Toby, as well, an ass-head, coxcomb, knave, and gull at this moment?
Ironically, the rest of the ending is not entirely happy. Olivia and Sebastian (an enthusiastic Miles Burnett, a match for his sister in personality) are heading for a good life, but we have reason to worry about Viola. Hale’s Orsino is a nice enough fellow, but his crush on Olivia has tendedto cause eruptions of passion that reveal a violent streak in the man. “There is no woman’s sides can bide the beating of so strong a passion as love doth give my heart, no woman’s heart so big, to hold so much. They lack retention,” he shouts, fists clench and trembling so that Viola needs must recoil from him. He doesn’t throw a punch, except verbally with that last sentence. It hits the air with a loud “ouch” for women. Run from this guy, Viola. We see Orsino’s anger rise often. He snaps at the members of his court and seethes with such a grudge against Antonio that, at the end, as the pair of lovers depart through the curtains at the back of the stage, the still-handcuffed Antonio is hauled off through another door by the officer.
From left, Sir Toby Belch (Michael Deely), Fabian (Mikaal Bates), Maria (Kristin McCarthy Parker) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jonathan William Minton) look over the letter Maria has penned to gull Malvolio. Photo by The Mad and Merry Theatre Company.
That leaves Feste alone on stage for the play-ending song. But Leede’s Feste has been on stage most of the play, munching on Cheerios behind the curtains, watching the action. The allegory in this direction might be to cast Feste as a see-all observer, but that doesn’t hold with the play itself because Shakespeare simply does not make Feste a know-all observer (he employs a number of devices to achieve the see-all persona in other plays, so certainly he could have done the same with Feste if he wanted to). Rather, Feste, as written, is making it all up as he goes along.
Or is it as she goes along? This production maintains the masculine pronoun for Feste though Leede plays the part in pony tail, ripped hip-hugger jeans, and a ragged t-shirt with bare midriff under an unbuttoned plaid flannel shirt. Feste is fine as a woman, and until the gender confusion in the text surfaced I considered her a riot girl kind of fool, kid-sister-like as a member of Olivia’s household. Plus, the fact a woman is playing Feste turns Aguecheek’s observation that the fool “has an excellent breast” into a double entendre. Why, then, the part is still presented as the man in the script, I'm not sure. This confusion aside, Leede imparts Feste’s wisdom well, landing her jokes clearly and making the part fun, and her characterization of Sir Topaz is the production’s comic highpoint.
I will always contend that Twelfth Night is in the comedy section of the First Folio for a specific reason: It’s a funny play. At its heart is the epitome of Shakespeare’s comic heroines, a woman of incredible optimism. Mad & Merry’s production may lean toward the serious side, but it has a good heart.
December 12, 2012