Tasty Trifle

The confusion in DTC's Twelfth Night is pleasant but familiar

I haven't been too keen on Dallas Theater Center artistic director Richard Hamburger's leviathan takes on musicals (although anything performed in that aircraft hangar known as the Arts District Theater has got to be stretched to fit), but I've adored his similar outsized approach to classical works. Memories of Hamburger's marvelously goofy Tartuffe and his somberly glittering As You Like It echoed in my cranium as I watched his current interpretation of Twelfth Night. A lot of people have justifiable complaints about the Arts District Theater, but it's a killer place to hear William Shakespeare's loop-de-loop puns, double entendres, and metaphors. I've watched the Elizabethan playwright in places so cramped--Macbeth disintegrated and The Comedy of Errors twins disassembled in the Undermain's basement--that my mind felt like it was going to explode from the pressure of such verbal complexity swirling so tightly around me. In the Arts District Theater, an actor's voice soars into so much overhead space, you can relax and visualize the antics as at a flight show or acrobatics performance.

Similarly, Hamburger and one of his favorite designers, Michael Yeargan, have a playroom sizable enough to spread their toys around. For a couple of centuries, stage artists made literal with sets and props the culmination of the English Christmas celebration that gives the play its title, but there are no gigantic lit trees or tablefuls of plum pudding at DTC. Director and designer have gone for a sunny Mediterranean idyll that befits the Isle of Illyria, where Viola (Mary Bacon) washes up from a shipwreck. She fears that her twin brother Sebastian (T.J Kenneally) has drowned, but he's rescued by an extremely affectionate sea captain named Antonio (James Crawford, who's been directed by Hamburger to amplify the homoeroticism that Shakespearean scholars insist was implied). Sister and brother wind up as interlopers in the tortured courtship of Olivia (Krista Hoeppner) and her constantly rejected suitor Orsino (Jeremiah Wiggins); Viola chooses to disguise herself as a male servant named Cesario and is, in the process, constantly mistaken for Sebastian, who grows to feel great amor for Olivia.

I could fill this page with a further plot synopsis, but suffice it to say that Twelfth Night serves as the prototype for Shakespearean romantic hijinks. Genders are confused, love is unrequited, class systems are thwarted, and a fool named Feste (Jesse Lenat, strumming ballads like a young Bob Dylan but with identifiable emotions in his voice) turns out to be--shock of shocks!--the wisest of the bunch. Notable in DTC's version are what director Hamburger has chosen to emphasize and what falls in the background. The orchestrated humiliation of Olivia's brown-nosing manservant Malvolio (Robin Chadwick, in the production's most crowd-pleasing performance) has often been played with crueler zeal to make the quartet of young lovers at the show's center seem more sincerely sweet. Here, Malvolio courts Olivia with long-legged, clownish desperation (his absurd beachwear even resembles a clown's tights); Chadwick's prancing performance makes him an enthusiastic insider to his own character's downfall. Meanwhile, the original would-be lovers on the island, dark-humored Olivia and pining Orsino, are almost lost in a crowd of stellar supporting performers making the most of their subordinate roles. Granted, Olivia is supposed to be in mourning for her father and brother, and Hoeppner does get to flee in shock from Malvolio. But Wiggins barely registers as Orsino, a part written to be filled with callow narcissism.

Mary Bacon, Krista Hoeppner, Jeremiah Wiggins, and T.J. Kenneally suffer much gender confusion in Shakespeare's wildly ambisexual farce.
Linda Blase
Mary Bacon, Krista Hoeppner, Jeremiah Wiggins, and T.J. Kenneally suffer much gender confusion in Shakespeare's wildly ambisexual farce.


Twelfth Night runs through March 25 at the Dallas Theater Centerís Arts District Theater. Call (214) 522-TIXX.

A Streetcar Named Desire runs through March 24 at Fort Worthís Stage West. Call (817) STG-WEST.

Shakespeare's works seem to be revived in cycles, and DTC's Twelfth Night may be the apex of a three-year popularity for the comedy in Texas, probably spurred by a much-publicized New York version starring Helen Hunt. Although my opinions on this matter are disdained by some, I continue to insist that the ubiquity of Shakespeare in the relatively small, rarefied world of American theater is driving the Elizabethan master past cliché and into self-parody. With its warm citrus colors, generous and benevolent performances, and Hamburger's willingness to do anything for a laugh in delicious contrast with all the beautiful poetry being spoken, this Twelfth Night captivated me--despite the fact I've been overindulged with mistaken identities, gender deceptions, wise fools, cheeky servants, and blind lovers. When you've begun to enjoy a genius such as Shakespeare despite himself, it's time to take a breather.

For contemporary "issue"-driven audiences in the age of public confession, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire still contains much to chew on: rape, wife-beating, the vilification of sexually adventurous women, gay self-hatred escalating to suicide. Since most of us consider ourselves to be qualified psychologists (albeit unlicensed and nondegreed), a certain provincialism sets in if we're lucky enough not to have experienced such tragedies personally--they befall others who've yet to be sufficiently self-actualized, who don't listen to Dr. Phil. That's why Streetcar seems a little shocking in its quaintness: Suicide, spousal abuse, and sex addiction take place entirely outside the antiseptic chat rooms of TV newsmagazines. They are facts of life, albeit shamefully hidden ones, rather than stains to be scrubbed away by the motto, "If you don't get help here, get help somewhere." And so Allied Theatre Group's new production of Williams' theatrical standard feels at once immediate and a little foreign, disturbing and archaic at the same time.

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