Thursday, July 2, 2015

Anticipating HART's annual Shakespeare production: The humanity of Twelfth Night's least likable character should not be hard to find

The first thing I did when the Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre's  cast list e-mail for "Twelfth Night" hit my inbox was plunge into it. Diving into the cast announcement of a major production can feel as risky and subject to second thoughts as immersion in the sea that the self-involved Duke Orsino imagines as he opens the comedy with "If music be the food of love, play on."

It was already exciting to learn that Courtney Sale would be directing the show. Her focus on a show's visual significance and her willingness to break through the net of words chime thoroughly with the spirit of Shakespeare's last pure comedy. "Twelfth Night" is dependent on appearances and the friction of behavioral contrasts, jumbled together as identities diverge and converge. Sale's strengths are a perfect match for this play.
Ryan Artzberger: An  actor who brings breakthrough concepts to the stage.

The show opens at White River State Park with a preview performance four weeks from today. The cast includes actors familiar and unfamiliar to me. (In the latter category is Keith Potts; rarely have I seen an actor's publicity photo so perfectly match a character! He's a dead ringer for Feste, the wise and witty clown.)

My big "Why, of course!" moment came when I learned that Ryan Artzberger will be playing Malvolio, the strict steward for the countess Olivia. He startled me in 2012 with his madcap Iago in HART's "Othello," and here he'll be doing the control freak and delusional romantic Malvolio in the topsy-turvy world of "Twelfth Night," whose very title alludes to the revelry that was characteristic of Epiphany observance in Shakespeare's time.

So why does Artzberger as Malvolio seem like the right choice?  Because he is gifted at investing outsider roles with an energy that borders on caricature, while usually finding the core humanity in them. And there's no more embattled an outsider in a Shakespeare comedy than Malvolio.

Typically, Artzberger suggests a character's internal divisions from his first appearance; it makes him compulsively watchable. What may not seem entirely right at first usually turns out to have grown from wholesale commitment to an unwavering, almost extravagant concept. Artzberger invests his roles with centrifugal force; Malvolio, though not the main character, is in an odd sense the center of "Twelfth Night."
As Scrooge, a revelation in IRT's famous snow.
But only to the degree that it has one, I must add. The critic Harold Bloom truly writes: "The play is decentered; there is almost no significant action, perhaps because nearly everyone behaves involuntarily." It's the perfect arena for an Artzberger demonstration of how to hold an isolated but vital character together.

The Artzberger brand was first impressed upon me in 2010, when  he first played Ebenezer Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol," the hit annual production at Indiana Repertory Theatre, where Artzberger does the bulk of his local work. The ferocity of his skinflint, so firmly established before Scrooge's "Bah, humbug!" persona gradually peels away, was all anybody could ask for.

What was surprising was the conversion scene, when Scrooge discovers that his frightening ghost-guided visions have deposited him on the Christmas Day he had roundly scorned just hours before. Artzberger's Scrooge bubbled over at the discovery, giddy about the opportunity to do some good in the world and redeem his unsavory reputation.

Here was a crabbed man gloriously undone by sudden access to virtue. It was as if he had entered the kingdom of heaven as a little child, the way the Birthday Boy long ago deemed necessary. At once, before our eyes, "A Christmas Carol" moved from didactic entertainment to religious parable.

"Misprision in the highest degree!" Feste the clown exclaims in the first act of "Twelfth Night" during a battle of wits with the countess Olivia. He's countering her latest witticism, but he could just as well be describing the whole play.

People in "Twelfth Night" are dependably taken for someone else. Sometimes they don a disguise willingly; sometimes they are forced into it. Most characteristically, as Bloom reminds us, they are without conscious choice in the matter. Shakespeare's subtitle, "What You Will," invites the audience's tolerance for mistaken identities and misread situations.

Malvolio falls victim to the gentlewoman Maria's vicious trick largely because his self-control and disdain for unruliness hide a susceptibility to passion. The wily servant is ready to take advantage of that.  He's declared mad and forced into a small, dark room. At the end, when all the loose ends are tied together, and happiness prevails for just about everyone, Malvolio stalks off, swearing revenge.

Should we sympathize with him? the play's critics have long debated. I predict that Artzberger's portrayal will make sympathy for the severe, officious servant feel natural.

In support, I turn to an odd place, perhaps: T.S. Eliot's commentary on "Othello," the play in which my memory of Artzberger's Iago remains vivid and disturbing. Eliot is focusing on Othello's final speech, before he kills the wife he believes to have been unfaithful. The influential poet-critic, as he often does, here presents a generalization putting Othello's self-absorption in context: "Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself."

I think most of us recognize that desire in ourselves, and that's the key to seeing that Malvolio is entitled to it as well.  By the end of "Twelfth Night," Malvolio has been shoved beyond the chance to know humility; he has been humiliated. What will resonate with us as we watch Artzberger will be the character's core need for self-esteem. He may have been mistaken and narrow in how he chose to express that need earlier, but Malvolio still deserves to think well of himself.

I have no doubt we will see his claim to that right confirmed by this actor. Along the way, of course, Artzberger's talent for outsized foolery will have us laughing long before sympathy occurs to us.