A Twin Killing
Titan Theatre Company, Queens Theatre, New York, New York
Saturday, March 25, 2017, Second row, right side, 70-seat studio theater
Directed by Lenny Banovez
Sierra and Lauren Tothero as Viola and Sebastian in Titan Theatre Company's production of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night at Queens Theatre. Below, Orsino (Tyler Moss) tries to contain his romantic heart as Viola watches. Photos by Michael Pauley, Titan Theatre Company.
The line between a good idea and a gimmick in the staging of a William Shakespeare play can be as tangential as the predetermination of an egg to split into two embryos. Titan Theatre's decision to cast identical twins as Viola and Sebastian in its production of Twelfth Night incited in me a high degree of excitement when it was first announced. While watching the play, though, I realized how what I considered a great idea bumps into the realm of gimmickery, and how quality of performance ultimately is the determinator.
Then, too, the director, Lenny Banovez, seems overly cognizant of the potential for seeming too gimmicky. Despite the company's marketing efforts around this twins casting coup, he purposely sidesteps the theatrical potential of having twins in the two roles, which is ironic given how much this production relies on overly broad performances for many of the play's comic characters. Nevertheless, Titan Theatre Company stages a winning Twelfth Night on the strength of the more subtly supple performances in the cast, especially from one of the twins.
My anticipation for this production stems from a particularly keen moment in the Shakespeare's Globe 2013 production of Twelfth Night in which Tim Carroll directed an all-male cast led by Mark Rylance, who won a Tony Award as Olivia during the show's Broadway run. Sebastian makes his first appearance in the play in Act II, Scene 1, accompanied by Antonio, a scene that comes right after Viola, disguised as Cesario, has left Olivia, who then sends Malvolio after her with a ring. In their Elizabethan costumes, makeup, and wigs, Samuel Barnett's Viola in disguise and Joseph Timm as Sebastian looked identical; meanwhile, Carroll's direction stalled Antonio's entrance so that Sebastian first appears alone, long enough for the audience (and certainly Shakespeare's first audience) to think this was Viola until Antonio—not Malvolio—appears. I was fooled in this moment, and the gasps around me were audible. Now, if you had real identical twins in these roles…
In appearance and voice, Lauren and Sierra Tothero as, respectively, Sebastian and Viola, are indistinguishable, with or without the simple Elizabethan costuming designed by Grae Greer. Nevertheless, rather than using that fact to achieve the kind of delightful theatrical shocks Shakespeare hands him in this play, Banovez takes specific measures to ensure that the audience does not get confused. For his first appearance, Sebastian crawls on stage with Antoniao (Marcus Denard Johnson) hiding under a large blanket. Even without an identical Sebastian and Viola, I don't understand this staging choice (Antonio is not in danger at his home, the apparent location of this scene; his enemies are in Orsino's court). When Sebastian does reach Illyria, Lauren Tothero is wearing a sword; Sierra Tothero's Viola is not, despite Sir Toby Belch referring to "That defence thou hast." The sword IDing who's who deflates the potential for the audience to fully share in the characters' confusion leading up to the final-act reveal (though the couple next to me did have trouble discerning Sebastian from Viola from scene to scene). If you go to the trouble of casting identical twins as twins in a Shakespeare play, why not make the most of the effect? After all, how many identical twins have expertise in Shakespeare's text?
That, in fact, is the one distinguishible characteristic of the Tothero twins. Both are professional actresses and both give solid stage performances of their characters. Sierra, however, has more Shakespeare credits in her bio, including previous work with Titan, and while Lauren playing Sebastian gives serviceable readings of Shakespeare's verse, Sierra is sublime as Viola.
Twin or no twin, Sierra's verse-speaking skills is merit enough for casting her as Viola. She gives a deep portrayal of the shipwrecked girl disguised as the boy Cesario and serving as love messenger for Count Orsino (Tyler Moss), with whom she has fallen in love, to Olivia (Tressa Preston). More profoundly, Sierra puts Shakespeare's poetic genius on constant display, yet it's all natural, even when she purposefully highlights the play's masterpiece speech, "Make me a willow cabin at your gate." Upon Olivia asking "Why, what would you do?" Sierra's Viola pauses as she thinks through her response, creating anticipation for those in the audience who know what's coming while setting up an aural spotlight for those who don't, and then she lifts the passage's words onto the ethereal wings of her voice. It's a wonderful way to give this wonderful moment its due, and because of it, it's no wonder that Olivia swoons over Cesario.
If Viola is a pragmatic romantic, Orsino is the ultraromantic in Moss's appealing portrayal. Moss, artistic director of the Shakespeare Forum and a highlight of many productions reviewed by Shakespeareances.com, expertly brings Shakespeare's majestic verse construction skills to play in his Orsino. He balances the count's tendency as a stalking despot with his big heart, affinity for all things beautiful, and a yearning for the mightiest of love. This is an Orsino that Viola can develop an all-encompassing crush on, yet Olivia simply cannot love.
A key reading of this production's portrayals in this love triangle is that while love is unaccountable, it is not whimsy. Olivia considers Orsino "virtuous, know him noble, of great estate, of fresh and stainless youth, in voices well divulged, free, learn'd and valiant, and in dimension and the shape of nature, a gracious person." Yet she cannot love him. On the other hand, Toby reports that Olivia "will not match above her degree, neither in estate, years, nor wit; I have heard her swear't" (granted, Toby is not always a trustworthy reporter), and by imputation she likely would not marry below her degree in estate or years. Yet she falls in love and quickly marries the presumed boy, Cesario. Viola, meanwhile, knows how besotted Orsino is with Olivia. Yet she can't help loving him. Nor, as it turns out, he her: the fondness Moss's Orsino shows toward Cesario is genuine love, but in no way is it sexual—until he learns Cesario is really a girl. Then it's, Oh boy! he can't wait to see her in her woman's weeds (though as they kiss in the final act, I suspect he will see her out of any weeds before seeing her dressed as a lady).
Twelfth Night has one more standard-bearer romantic: Malvolio, and Lloyd Mulvey makes that the foundation of his portrayal. Malvolio is described in a lot of ways by a lot of characters: "sick of self-love" by Olivia, "churlish" by Viola, a "niggardly, rascally sheep-biter" by Toby, "a fool" by the Fool, and "a kind of puritan" by Maria. Maria goes on to say that Malvolio is "an affectioned ass, that cons state without book and utters it by great swarths: the best persuaded of himself, so crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him." That last attribute actually is one that other characters in this play share, including Olivia, Orsino, and Toby (and Maria herself, as Laura Frye plays her in this production).
Mulvey subtly balances all of these descriptions in his portrayal of Malvolio, and he keenly adds a touch from yet one more description from Maria when she lays the trap at the start of the box tree scene, saying that Malvolio "has been yonder i' the sun practising behavior to his own shadow this half hour." What Maria describes we see in Mulvey's Malvolio, not only as this scene progresses but throughout the play. He is always performing in a world of his own making, whether serving (or, later, courting) Olivia, accosting Cesario, or confronting Toby (Michael Selkirk). Not until he's imprisoned as part of Toby's prank does Malvolio drop all pretenses, and it is this rawly insecure and puzzled Malvolio who approaches Olivia in the final scene and fully gains our empathy. But when he learns the extent of the prank, Malvolio returns to his place in the world of his mind and vows revenge "on the whole pack of you." It's not a convincing threat, but Malvolio already has established with validity his superiority to Toby and Maria. "You are idle shallow things," he tells them, and he's right. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them, and some, despite their social-status limitations, aspire to greatness. This is a heroic quality in Mulvey's Malvolio.
In addition to his credit as director, Banovez also is listed as adaptor. His changes are less textual than contextual. He flip-flops the first two scenes (Viola's shipwreck now comes before Orsino's "If music be the food of love, play on"), which is not uncommon, but he actually opens the play with Feste (Tom Morin) singing Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"). This points to the poetic essence of the performances to come. However, other adaptions miss their marks. When Viola as Cesario returns to Olivia's house, it is Maria and a sullen serving girl (Skya Theobald), who already has appeared in a couple of scenes, instead of Toby and Aguecheek who accost her. Thus, Maria instead of Aguecheek repeats Viola's "rain odours" line; and rather than being impressed as Aguecheek is in the text, Maria speaks it cynically, resulting in Olivia commanding her and the girl to leave. This would be fine except that in the next scene, Aguecheek (Tristan Colton) is still the one who describes what has passed here. At the end, Toby and Aguecheek remain on stage for the reunion rather than going off to be treated for their wounds, and cut is Toby's turning against Aguecheek. This is in keeping with the broad, overly loud, and sometimes mugging performances of these parts intended to be comical to the core.
The most obvious textual alteration is keeping Maria on stage for the box tree scene. She hides along with Toby, Aguecheek, and Fabian (Ian O'Boyle, a talented 17-year-old turning in a delightfully playful performance). Though Maria has no lines, she gets a handshake from Toby (while both are hiding in separate places) on his line "Excellent wench, say I," as Malvolio reads the fake letter Maria has composed. This scene relies as much on stage business as acting, and in that regard this production scores high marks, largely because of Maria's presence. Sarah Pearline's scenic design is a two-tiered stage with a grass-covered platform, one step up from the floor, along the back of the set with four concrete benches and a rose trellis gate in the middle. The benches and gate obviously serve as hiding places for the conspirators, but the platform itself provides the funniest cover as Fabian and Maria, lying on the ground, roll on their sides against the platform's edge. Malvolio looks at them, but he thinks they are just the wall of the platform; of course, they have to roll back and forth during the ebb and flow of Malvolio's reading the letter. And in a wonderful inside-theater visual joke, the four conspirators end up using yoga poses as they emerge from their final hiding places, lying in full view on the floor behind the postscript-reading Malvolio.
OK, that last one is a gimmick. A good gimmick. So is casting identical twins as the twin Viola and Sebastian. But if those twins can act—especially if one can give us such a thrilling Viola—it becomes a great idea, one that should have been more fully nurtured in a way that would have left Shakespeare himself confused.
April 9, 2017