Hellzapoppin' in Illyria: HART's "Twelfth Night" plays up hijinks, puts life's improvisations in foreground

We all know people who faithfully take down the Christmas tree and put away the decorations on Dec. 26, perhaps all the better to focus on the totally secular celebration of New Year's Eve within the week.

Our ancestors embraced a Christmas season both inside and outside church that comprised a dozen days, ending on the Feast of the Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, Jan. 6. Their revels then were ended, to paraphrase Prospero, the wizard of more earnest trickery in "The Tempest."

The attendant spirit of madcap partying, enfolding much confusion of identity and blurred self-knowledge, exhausts itself in a production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" that concludes HART's annual White River State Park presentation  tonight.

Putting its show under the control of the visionary, iconoclastic director Courtney Sale for the second year in a row, Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre is staging a "Twelfth Night" that takes the title's implications seriously, along with the playwright's uncharacteristic subtitle, "What You Will." To be serious about that means not being serious about most other things in this intricate comedy.

Orsino (Ben Rose) and "Cesario" (Hillary Smith) get to know each other.
Such an approach does not misrepresent the play, however,  though some of its wisdom struggles for proper expression. As seen Friday, the reunion of the long-separated siblings Sebastian (Tyler Ostrander) and Viola is moving, to be sure, and a note of genuine regret among the engineers of the steward Malvolio's gulling came through.

But on the whole, this Illyria seems to be a close neighbor of the Marx Brothers' Fredonia in "Duck Soup," or — more to the point — the Ephesus of "The Comedy of Errors." It's a topsy-turvy world, an anarchic playground for shallow people. Even the officer who arrests the embittered sea captain Antonio is a caricature, and why shouldn't he be? He's only there to help tie up one of the plot lines.

Sale is interested in the machinery that makes "Twelfth Night" work, and that machinery is fueled by misdirected affections and deliberate foolery. Everybody is improvising, from the Duke Orsino — more impressed with himself as a lover than with the ostensible target of his love, Countess Olivia — through her officious Malvolio and the household's conspirators, who exploit his infatuation with his boss, to the clever dissembler Viola, making her way into a new world disguised as an ingratiating page under the name Cesario.

The spirit of the subtitle is apparent in the replacement of Shakespeare's songs by modern ditties. Apt for the moments where they occur, Feste's songs are arguably inessential. But I missed "O mistress mine, where are you roaming?" and "Come away, come away, death," and especially the Clown's philosophical finale, with its poignant refrain. "At Last," though soulfully sung by Keith Potts, doesn't quite come up to the mark, and then there was "Look for the Silver Lining," among other songs I didn't recognize.

Another one of the director's changes seemed quite appropriate. She cinematically intercuts the first scene, from Orsino's famous entrance ("If music be the food of love, play on"), with the third scene, in which Viola finds herself washed up on the Illyrian seacoast and quickly orients herself to the new environment. This was a masterstroke for getting some exposition out of the way and speeding the audience into the action.

Thus we immediately take in the grandiloquence of Ben Rose's portrayal of Orsino and the resourcefulness and gumption of the shipwrecked Viola, as played by Sydney Andrews. Soon the implacable hostility to men of the Countess Olivia shows another side of the vanity and self-absorption apparently native to Illyrians. Hillary Smith projected this attitude with the accidental help of the sun setting over the White River behind her (and everyone else in the first act). There's nothing like a haughty woman seen in silhouette to deflect undesired attention.

Household cut-ups: Fabian, Maria and Sir Toby Belch rule the roost.
The way Olivia's unruly household is fleshed out in this production elevates Illyrian willfulness into a matter of civic pride. Robert Neal as Sir Toby Belch and Ben Tebbe as Sir Andrew Aguecheek are ungovernable and amusing without comic-drunk cliches. Their foolishness carries strong hints that, drunk or sober, they are no-'count aristocrats fit for manipulation by Olivia's ungentle gentlewoman, Maria. She's played with brassy aplomb by Milicent Wright, with Maria's erotic hold over Sir Toby made explicit. The mischievous troop is completed by the clownish servants Feste and Fabian (Zack Neiditch).

Any hierarchical social system tends to encourage resentment and power games from top to bottom. The way this works in "Twelfth Night" is sufficiently energetic and informed to refute the persistent theory that the middle-class man of Stratford couldn't have written the plays ascribed to Shakespeare. To me, it's less likely that the Earl of Oxford could place himself imaginatively among underlings than that Will Shakespeare could look in both directions on the social scale and come up, assisted by genius, with insights no one else has given us. It was the Roman playwright Terence, a freed slave,  who proclaimed: "Nothing human is alien to me." Centuries later, Shakespeare was well-positioned to adopt the same watchword. "Twelfth Night" is Exhibit A.

That brings us to Malvolio, the Roman candle of a character whose uprightness turns out to be skin-deep. As played by Ryan Artzberger, he's not the Puritan he's mocked for being by Maria and her fellows. Her more accurate assessment of him as a "time-pleaser," a man whose orderliness is solely a function of his job, was splendidly brought off by Artzberger.

Malvolio (Ryan Artzberger) tries out a new gait as the conspirators look on.
In this portrayal, Malvolio's moral code stretches with difficulty over his ungovernable, largely unexpressed passion for Olivia. He's just enough repressed to stay employed, and rigorous in carrying out his household duties. When he is fooled into believing that his lady has the hots for him, all propriety is cast aside.

Artzberger, adding to his roster of portrayals ruled by near-demonic possession, was unstinting as the besotted Malvolio. This made the steward's "dark house" confinement as punishment for his bizarre behavior another of the production's brief moments of poignancy, though that scene seemed a little unfocused Friday evening. (Here's how I speculated about this actor as Malvolio a month ago.)

The performance was bedeviled while Artzberger was commanding the stage by a 10-minute barrage of what I later learned were fireworks from nearby Victory Field. Holding Olivia's purported love letter before him, Artzberger's Malvolio sputtered and gestured in imitation of the intrusive noise, remaining in character while responding creatively to the annoyance.

HART's "Twelfth Night" may amount to little more than unruly satire on the pretentious self-regard of the upper class anytime, anywhere. Or it may be seen as an examination of the ambiguous way we don and doff identities in order to get what we think we want.

Or it may be best, as Courtney Sale and her confederates seem to be saying with a wink, simply to take it for what you will.

[Photos by Julie Curry and Zach Rosing]


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